Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The 2014 Phantom Awards - The Best of the Year!


Hey, Phantomaniacs - it’s time for the biggest awards event that Needless Things produces all year long! That’s right, just like every other site on the internet, at the end of each year I put together a list of the very best stuff.

Next year I might actually do some kind of voting thing; at least amongst the writing staff here. But I didn’t think of that in time this year, so this is all my opinion.


Best Movie – Guardians of the Galaxy

I’ve been a fan of James Gunn for years now. When I heard that he would be directing the unlikely Guardians movie I had no idea what he would do with it, but I knew that it would be great.

I had no attachment to the Guardians and no real knowledge of them thanks to my general disinterest in the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe (aside from loving the current Silver Surfer comic). I had faith that whatever route Gunn took, his humor and cinematic flair would make for another wonderful entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I had no idea that he would end up making not only the best film of the MCU, but the best film of the entire year.

From beginning to end Guardians is nothing but pure delight. The visuals are astounding, the world-building might be the best since Star Wars, the characters are fully fleshed out and relatable, and the story is not only easy to understand, but fits in neatly with themes throughout the rest of the MCU.

We saw it twice in the theater as a family and have watched it more since buying it on Blu-ray. I highly recommend James Gunn’s commentary track – it’s entertaining and revelatory. 
Best Ongoing Comic Book – Saga

As long as Saga is being published I can’t see another title taking this slot. It continues to be an engrossing, evolving epic narrative that connects with me in a way no other comic book ever has.

That’s right – I’m not just saying that this is the best comic coming out now. Saga is the best comic I have ever read. It’s top of the stack every single time. When I finish an issue I cannot wait to read the next one. There are a few comics on my pull list that I might pick up sometimes and think, “Nah – I’m not in the mood for this one right now”. They’re not bad comics, but they might have a certain tone that I’m not always into. I am always ready to read Saga. This is the comic that made me realize that deadlines and timely publication mean nothing in the face of an excellent narrative. Not that Saga has ever been late, but they do take a hiatus every six issues and that doesn’t bother me in the least. No matter how long Vaughn and Staples might take off, I will always be there waiting for new Saga when they come back.

Next year I might have to change this category to “Best Ongoing Comic Book That Isn’t Saga”.

PLUS: The first hardcover book collecting issues 1-18 was recently released. It gets my highest recommendation.
Best Story Arc in A Comic Book – Daredevil Volume 4

I was never a fan of Daredevil. He just seemed so miserable to me.

Then Mark Waid came along and reworked Matt Murdock into a guy that was tired of being miserable. He and Chris Samnee (and several other fantastic and stylistically appropriate artists) crafted superhero comic books that are what I want superhero comic books to be – full of fun and adventure and excitement. That’s not to say there isn’t drama or high-stakes, but it’s never at the cost of the overall fun tone of the book.

The beginning of the fourth volume of Daredevil finds Matt relocated to San Francisco after having his identity as the Man Without Fear outed. In an entertaining and surprisingly realistic move, some folks believe that Matt Murdock is Daredevil and some don’t. Matt himself denies it, up to and including wearing a t-shirt that says “I’m Not Daredevil”.

The opening arc of the new volume is one of the most rewarding stories I’ve read. Things like Matt’s identity and ability to get around in a new environment are addressed. The coastal change is done in the best way possible – it presents new challenges to the character in a completely organic way. Nothing about the change feels artificial. It’s simply part of the narrative.

Best Single Issue Comic Book –Afterlife With Archie #6
This series has blown me away with its brutal excellence. It’s the best zombie comic I’ve read since the first Marvel Zombies (yeah – I know it’s easy to forget but the first miniseries was actually great). I mean, obviously The Walking Dead would be the best, but it’s not really about zombies.

Afterlife has managed to present new kinds of horror in a compelling ongoing narrative with each and every issue. But issue six is where things really got insane. Well, insane-er.

The issue focuses on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, who hasn’t been seen since her aunts banished her to some horrid nether-realm for starting the whole zombie plague in the first place. Sabrina is in a hospital, trying to determine what’s going on and where she is. It’s a very Hammer Horror-type mystery.

As things unfold it becomes clearer that sinister forces are at work (of course) and by the end of the issue the Old Gods and Cthulu have been introduced in to the fucked-up, horrifying world of Afterlife With Archie. And Sabrina has to marry one of them.

The phrase “game-changing” is used all too often in the world of comics, but this issue truly changed everything and introduced a whole new world of horrors into a narrative that was pretty messed up to begin with.

Best TV Series – Arrow

The world and the characters on this show continue to develop in the most interesting and unexpected ways. I feel like there are shows that are shot better or have more inspired scripts and even better acting, but no show has hooked me in the way that this one has. It isn;t the best at anything, but it's great at everything.

Best New TV Series – The Flash

Outside of Michael Rosenbaum’s portrayal of Wally West on Justice League I’ve never been a big fan of Flash. He runs fast. Whoop-de-do.

Spinning Barry Allen off of the Arrow TV show was ingenious for so many reasons. First it allowed him to be introduced in a pre-existing universe, so establishing his character was a more focused and enjoyable process. We already knew the world of Arrow and the characters that inhabit it. There was nothing to interfere with our getting to know Barry.

It was also beneficial in that Barry is a light, hopeful character – something in short supply on Arrow. Not that that show is all grim and dark or that it’s characters are morbid, but there is definitely a darker tone to the show. Barry Allen, on the other hand, is full of wonder and heart. He was a refreshing contrast.

It was also an advantage in that once Barry was introduced and off on his own show, it had enough separation from Arrow to really give us more comic booky action that what Arrow had allowed for. Don’t get me wrong – Arrow has done a wonderful job of slowly but surely introducing more fantastical concepts into the show. But the first episode of The Flash featured Weather Wizard, a guy that wouldn’t have totally worked on Arrow.

At least, not prior to the excellent and brilliant crossover that brought the slightly more grounded and somber show into the world of metahumans with nothing short of total success.

Anyway, The Flash has been engrossing, fascinating, and compelling from the get-go. It’s the one show that Mrs. Troublemaker and I look forward to with equal excitement every week. Aside from Iris the characters are all well-rounded and entertaining and the stories have been great. Additionally, the casting of the villains has been absolutely top-notch. Wentworth Miller as Captain Cold was inspired and I can only hope that we see a lot more of him in the future.

Best Album – Mandatory Fun – “Weird Al” Yankovic

I listened to this album for weeks straight after it came out. I don’t know whether that’s more attributable to the source material of the parody songs or to a reinvigorated Mr. Yankovic, but to me Mandatory Fun seems to be Al’s most inspired album in ages. The only song I was familiar with prior to hearing the album was the Imagine Dragons tune, but they were all strong parodies.

The two weak spots on the album were “Sports Song” and “Mission Statement”. The former was weak because it just really doesn’t have any replay value. It’s funny and pretty much encapsulates how I feel about sportsball, but I only ever needed to hear it once. The latter is in a style that I am not fond of and typically refer to as “hippie crap”. But I have to admit that over time it has grown on me. I listen to it now.

Everything else on Mandatory Fun is fantastic. I think “Now That’s What I Call Polka!” is the strongest polka since 1996’s “The Alternative Polka” from Bad Hair Day. “Word Crimes” might be Weird Al’s best parody and “Lame Claim to Fame” is one of his strongest style parodies.

Overall I would say this is Weird Al’s strongest release since Off the Deep End and is second only to Polka Party on my list of favorites from him.

Best Existing TV Show That I Discovered in 2014 – Deadwood

Hot damn, this is a great show.

I like Westerns, but this one came out during a time when I didn’t subscribe to premium cable. I kept hearing about how good Deadwood was, but since premium cable companies like to keep the prices on their box sets high enough that I won’t buy them I never looked into this. But then I got into the whole Amazon Prime thing (totally worth it) and was able to check out some shows I’ve missed. Deadwood is, by far, the best of them.

If you don’t know, it’s a graphic and visceral account of the town of Deadwood’s growth during the late 1800s. Famous historical figures comprise most of the characters and the narrative intertwines their stories and activities within the town. Ian McShane’s portrayal of Al Swearingen is one of my favorite things I’ve ever seen on TV. It’s a damn shame HBO cancelled this before the story was done being told.

Best DVD/Blu-Ray – Halloween Box Set

I left this one until the last minute, hoping two things – 1) That I would receive the Batman TV Series Blu-ray set for Christmas and that 2) That the Batman TV Series Blu-ray set would take this category with ease.

While the episodes look beautiful and the set is worth every penny, Batman falls short on features. The set is notably Adam West-centric and lacks any sort of commentaries or other episode-accompanying goodies. It’s a wonderful set and I’m thrilled to have it, but overall it simply doesn’t measure up to Anchor Bay’s treatment of the Halloween franchise.

Granted, the Bay had years of special features and Special Editions to pull from (and neglected to include the excellent 25 Years of Terror documentary), but this Deluxe Blu-ray set is truly the best compilation of Halloween – or possibly any other horror franchise- we’re ever likely to see. It’s packed with alternate cuts, commentaries, and special features; many of which have never been available before. The transfers of each film are the very best that have been released thus far. Season of the Witch looked so good that aside from the dated hairstyles and costumes it could have come out last year.

I spent all of October watching this box set and I’m still not done. It’s well worth the price, though many places have it for under a hundred bucks now. Check out my review here.


Best Kid-Oriented Cartoon – Gravity Falls

Like many of the great things that I’ve discovered in my life, Gravity Falls took me a little while to warm up to. It’s a bit of an odd concept and initially it can seem like it’s far too derivative of other cartoons. While it most certainly is derivative, it’s pulling from classics horror and science fiction much more than it is any modern cartoons; even the best of them.

The show follows the adventures of the brother and sister team of Mable and Dipper as they explore the titular town, finding strange events and beings that over the course of the show become intertwined in an overarching mystery. The show gets deeper and weirder as it goes on and the fantastic characters and voice actors keep you invested in the story.

The Troublemaker family still adore our standards like Adventure Time and Regular Show, but this year Gravity Falls pulled out in front of the others as our go-to favorite. 

Best New Cartoon – Star Wars: Rebels

We haven’t seen much of Rebels yet, as only seven episodes and a 44 minute feature have been broadcast so far, but the show immediately enthralled me in a way that Clone Wars never quite did.

Don’t get me wrong – The Clone Wars was at times an epic and even revolutionary television show. But the word that best describes it is “uneven”. There were entire story arcs that I simply did not care about. And while I admired the show’s ability to jump from one character or group of characters to another, a side effect of this was that I frequently didn’t care about a particular group and would check out of the show entirely.

Another thing Clone Wars had going against it was its prequel-era setting. While it certainly rose above the movies, it was still stuck telling stories that – to those of us who grew up with the Original Trilogy – didn’t matter. No matter how you slice it, the Republic fell.

While Rebels is still in the same boat – nothing major can change – it is the story of individuals in the midst of events. We have very specific characters whose arcs we will follow as the Empire starts to lose its grip on the galaxy. This smaller focus will allow for more immediate and fulfilling narratives. From the very first episode I liked Zeb, Hera, Kanan, Sabine, Chopper, and Aladdin… er, Ezra. And Agent Kallus makes for a fantastic antagonist and representative of all that which is wrong with the Empire.



 

Best Online Store – Amazon.com

Between Prime, the Wish List, and the ease of navigation, Amazon wins it again. They don’t always have the best price on items – rarely on NECA products, as a matter of fact – but if you’re a Prime subscriber the free two-day shipping usually makes up the difference. Patience is a virtue here, as you can put something on your Wish List and within a couple of months get it for up to fifty percent off of the original price. Not always, but often.

Best Website – Cracked.com

Everything on this site tends to be good to great. Plus, unlike other sites I frequent they seem to have editors on the lookout for grammar issues.

Best Live Music Event – nine inch nails at Lakewood Amphitheater 8.8.2014

This was one of the most powerful, memorable concerts I have ever witnessed. I still think about it all the time.
Best Live Non-Music Event – Monster Bash at Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse

This felt like the party to end all parties. Ever since I was a child I’ve seen movies and TV shows that depict these larger-than-life events with bands and people in costumes and all sorts of mayhem. Those things never really happen. Except that on this night in October at the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse, one did.

Best New Toy Line – Star Wars: Rebels by Hasbro

This one was so close that I actually typed up a header for Funko’s ReAction line to win before changing it.

Hasbro’s line edges Funko’s out for two reasons – pricing and vehicles. The ReAction lien has nostalgia going for it, but from a purely aesthetic perspective the figures look crappy compared to the Rebels figures. Plus you can buy a two-pack of Rebels for the price of a single ReAction figure.

And then there are the vehicles. The Rebels line offered three vehicles, each of which is full of features and looks good.

As a whole this line is nice to look at, sturdy, and fun. The figures may have limited articulation at only 5 points, but they look great and interact with the vehicles the way they are supposed to. On top of that, the first wave saw the release of almost all of the major characters. I do think it’s a shame that neither Sabine nor Hera made the first wave of figures, but at the same time I do consider them major characters that will carry the second wave. My son is just as excited about getting a Sabine as he was about finding an Ezra.

I know there are technicalities that could disqualify both of these lines. ReAction really started at the end of 2013 with Super 7’s Alien figures and the Rebels line is really just an extension of Hasbro’s pre-existing simplified Saga Legends line. But both lines started in earnest in 2014 and, quite frankly, were the only new things that felt new and exciting. Regardless of license and innovations, all of the NECA lines that I collect fall under the Reel Toys banner and feel like ongoing extensions of what NECA has been doing for over a decade, no matter how much better many of the releases seem to be getting.

Best Toy Company – Hasbro

This category looks at a toy company in its entirety – as far as the things I follow, anyway – and how it has fared in the areas of quality, selection, and relevance. Taking that into consideration, no other company has even come close to what Hasbro did in 2014.

While releases across all categories were more conservative than they have been in years, in 2014 Hasbro managed to satisfy collectors with Marvel Legends, Star Wars Black, a small but surprisingly satisfying selection of GI Joe, and what I understand to be a very good year for Transformers. At the same time they managed to market most of those same brands to kids with smaller scales and reduced articulation at very affordable prices.

My son and I collect various segments of those lines between us and neither of us had any quality control issues with any Hasbro products, a claim I cannot make about any other toy company that we buy from.

Okay, well – LEGO. But that’s, you know, LEGO.

Best Toy Line – Reel Toys from NECA

I have blown massive amounts of money on NECA toys in the past year. Not only does the company have licenses to tons of my favorite franchises – A Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead, Pacific Rim, Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, Alien, and Predator just to name a few – it continues to innovate with every wave of figures. NECA always seems to be looking for and implementing ways to make their toys better.

I can’t overlook the occasional shitty paint app, but otherwise I don’t have any quality control complaints. Nothing has broken on me in the past year and NECA has been absolutely nailing it with their selections. On top of that, the prices on their merchandise continue to be more than fair.

Okay, there was one more QC issue – this guy. And NECA did not give one tiny, little shit about helping me out with him.

Best Action Figure – New Adventures Batman from DC Collectibles

This was tough because one of the hands on this guy did break. But Mrs. Troublemaker got one for our son, as well, and nothing broke on it.

Also I stabbed a bloody hole in my finger with one of his pointy fucking bat ears, but that’s my own fault.

This is a fantastic figure that fulfills everything I wanted in a 6” scale animated Batman figure. This is the animated Batman I’ve been wanting since 1992, and that’s a hard thing to top. It’s over twenty years of toy anticipation. And DCC nailed it.

Best Individual Toy – Masters of the Universe Classics Modulok from Mattel

Matty really killed it with this guy. It’s the most fun, good-looking toy I bought all year. I wish I had two.


Best Restaurant – Pallookaville

Nothing will ever beat Pallookaville. You should go and listen to the Jim Stacy Episode of the Podcast right now.

Next year this category might be “Best Restaurant That Isn’t Pallookaville”.


Best Moment of the Year – Whose EFF Is It Anyway? At Dragon Con

Miss Lady Flex gets the unofficial Needless Things Person of the Year award. I don’t have words for how much she brought to Whose EFF, which was undoubtedly the biggest thing I did all year. I could never have done it without her and I would never want to. It’s not even my thing, it’s ours.

Obviously I’m also grateful to Sexy Wolverine for being amazing and bringing something I didn’t even know the show needed. And of course I am thankful to Gary, Shaun, and the Unknown Judge for their senses of both humor and brevity.

Mostly, though, I am thankful to every single person that took an hour (ish) out of their Dragon Con to come and watch us be foolish. Whether you were one of our incredible contestants or a member of the audience, it means so much to me that you took away from your valuable Dragon Con time to come and check us out.

We will be back – bigger and blacker – in 2015.

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