For over a year, I was in a movie rut where merely “fine” movies dominated what I watched. Most were only mildly recommendable. It was passable entertainment, but I missed that feeling of raw exuberance that came with the greats, where I couldn’t wait to tell friends and family what I just saw.
For someone who argued on how important it was to push beyond algorithms, ironically, I had fallen into the trap of my own “algorithm.” With limited time and firmly held personal tastes, I wasn’t taking risks on fresh ideas or untested genres.
But over the last few months, I’ve had a breakthrough: I found curators I trusted and gave into their recommendations.
Microsoft wants Xbox Game Pass to be the HBO of gaming, with heavy hitters rolling out regularly to plenty of buzz and critical fanfare. But today, Microsoft falls far short of that standard. Game Pass AAA releases, both from Xbox Game Studios and third party partnerships, are uneven in quality and too infrequent.
2022 came and went without a single notable big budget Game Pass release. Grounded, As Dusk Falls, and Pentiment got decent critical attention but were small titles primarily ignored by the larger gaming public.
2023 looks much more promising. However, Minecraft Legends scored a passable but far from great 73 on OpenCritic. I suspect the buzz following Redfall – rushing out the door at 30 FPS alongside some lukewarm previews – will lead to a similar lukewarm critical consensus. Even what will likely be a critical hit – Xbox Game Studios’ mainstay Forza Motorsport – missed its original Spring 2023 release window and settled into a vague “2023” timeline. For what’s left on the horizon, I see sci-fi RPG Starfield, with Bethesda Game Studios’ pedigree, as the only remaining possible “must play” for the remainder of the year. (I passed over Hi-Fi Rush and MLB The Show, both splashy titles that played well critically but didn’t break out into a wider audience.)
Midway through Nicolas Winding Refn’s new Netflix series Copenhagen Cowboy, I was thoroughly bored. The repetition was annoying: another neon-drenched set with stilted dialogue and glacial plot development. Then, in a shot that probably lasted no more than a minute, the series’ protagonist moved upwards in an elevator as a synth score kicked into overdrive. The brief scene’s immaculate construction ended up burrowing in my brain for days.
That small example underlines how Refn and fellow art house helmer Gaspar Noé are some of the most stylistically dazzling directors working today, to the point I regularly seek out their work. Yet I struggle to recommend almost any of their films. They provide memorable moments of stylish brilliance that clash against sophomoric writing, turgid dialogue, and nihilistic, sadistic violence. It’s frustrating because both could produce fantastic work with the right writers and collaborators.
Admittedly it can take a lot of work to group these two directors. Noé’s and Refn’s most famous films derive from different genres, if not at times, entirely different worlds. Noe’s 2002 Irréversible is messy and heavily improvised, a French extreme horror revenge tale whose reverse narrative structure feels in conversation with Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Refn’s 2011 Drive is a slick, minimalist crime thriller that meshes late 70s Walter Hill with 80s synths and a stoic turn from star Ryan Gosling.
Playing Call of Duty: Warzone 2.0’s DMZ mode this winter has been one the best first person shooter experiences I’ve had in years. It’s not because of the graphics, the level design, the battle pass, or the gunplay. All match but rarely exceed expectations for a free-to-play shooter in 2023. Instead, DMZ is awesome by mixing an open sandbox of activities with widely divergent human psychology. The results are unpredictable and often fascinating.
DMZ’s power derives from how much it differs from normal big budget multiplayer gameplay that funnels players down a narrow path of expected behavior. Racing games like Gran Turismo: Sport or Forza Horizon 5 push players through a track as fast as possible. Large scale battle royale shooters (Fortnite, Apex Legends) drop combatants into a combat zone as players battle to remain the last standing. There are, of course, endless tweaks and variations to give each game its character and difficulty, but successful gameplay hinges on an easy to follow win condition.
High dynamic range (HDR) is one of the biggest innovations for TV and smartphone displays in years. The technology improves luminance, color, highlights, and shadows, giving TV shows and movies a more natural, realistic look. It also enjoys wide availability across TVs, mobile devices, and streaming content. But bafflingly, in 2023, Netflix is the only streaming service that gate keeps HDR behind their highest tier subscription. It’s an underhanded, dated, and consumer unfriendly practice.
Critically, Netflix’s tiered strategy around streaming quality leaves the overwhelming majority of its massive audience in the dark (literally) on HDR’s full potential. Netflix is ubiquitous, virtually a utility at this point, and locking HDR away hampers the technology’s long term awareness and adoption. Fewer eyeballs, more shrugs about HDR’s effectiveness, and potentially more filmmakers questioning how essential HDR capture is in the first place.
Of course, Netflix is far from the only streamer that offers HDR TV shows and movies. For example, on HBO Max, you can watch popular series like The Last of Us and House of the Dragon in 4K HDR. For Disney Plus, all recent Marvel and Star Wars features are streamable in 4K HDR.
After a quiet 2022, Xbox kicks off 2023 with a “Developer_Direct” livestream. With deep dives on hyped Xbox titles like Forza Motorsport and Redfall, the event should be a slam dunk. However, based on Microsoft’s hit and miss PR record, I’m worried.
On the one hand, their recent E3 shows are well produced, with solid trailers, minimal padding, and genuine surprises. However, Microsoft press events outside of E3 are almost always forgettable. Their ID@Xbox showcases run too long and leave hosting duties to unprepared Twitch “influencers.” Other one-offs like Inside Xbox and the Xbox Games Showcase Extended are so watered down and rigid in their presentation that even die hard fans skip them.
Xbox marketing also feels asleep at the wheel for large stretches of the year, packing almost all their big announcements in the E3 week presser and the occasional trailer or two during the December Game Awards show. And even though Game Pass is one of Xbox’s top selling points, new releases on the service rarely get the promotion they deserve. Most are sent out with a “fire and forget” approach. Each game is one small part of a bimonthly announcement of five or more unrelated releases crammed together in a single News Wire post.
Tár is one of my favorite movies from 2022, thanks to a herculean performance by Cate Blanchett alongside Todd Field’s bold direction. For Field, this is only his third feature as director and his first in sixteen years. With such sporadic output and little connective tissue to his past work, I find his contributions to Tár fascinating to dissect. The film is Kubrickian in its clinical detail, subtle yet purposeful, messy and enigmatic, with an open provocation for the audience to get on board with the film’s unique wavelength or head for the exits.
Nowhere is that challenge clearer than in Tár’s opening thirty or so minutes. Like the fictitious composer and conductor Lydia Tár (Blanchett), the opener is bold and uncompromising in a way that feels tailor made to rankle some audiences. On an otherwise sparsely attended weeknight screening, I saw several moviegoers visibly impatient, sighing and shifting audibly in their seats.
Before I dive into that opening, it’s essential to set the larger context: Tár is a nearly three hour movie for which most is a patient “slice of life” character study. We learn about Tár (Blanchett) as she works through her musical projects and interacts with her wife and colleagues. Except for a guest lecture at Juilliard where Tár criticizes a student, onscreen conflict is mostly muted for the opening half or so of the film.
My standout gaming experiences this year were exclusively made by small studios that took bold narrative and gameplay swings. Most had a core development team of under twenty. None fall neatly within mainstream game genres. I can attribute this unorthodox result partially to my evolving tastes and the lingering effects of the pandemic on big budget studios. The 2022 AAA gaming space was far lighter than average this year, with only Elden Ring, God of War: Ragnorok, and Horizon: Forbidden West standing out among critics.
While the five games below (unranked, in alphabetical order) won’t suit the tastes of everyone, I found them exciting experiences that should leave lasting influence beyond their small budgets.
We are in peak shopping season for dedicated streaming devices from Apple, Roku, Google, and Amazon. There are seasonal sales, they make for a relatively affordable gift, and streaming services tend to get many new subscribers, spurning streaming hardware buys.
My advice: if you’re buying a dedicated streaming box, most should buy an Apple TV. Alternatively, if you are happy with your streaming life but have a few quibbles (like a missing service app on your setup), spend the bare minimum necessary to make your streaming experience tolerable. That latter scenario may mean spending nothing, bypassing existing hurdles by watching select content on a different device or casting from a phone (via Airplay or Chromecast) to your TV.
All other streaming options from Amazon, Google, and Roku are generally a substandard compromise. Yes, you’ll save a solid $80 to $100 in the short run. But you’re also shortchanging the longevity of the device, app availability and quality, and a host of other benefits unique primarily to Apple’s streaming box:
Some of the most hyped console games aren’t friendly to newcomers. Games like God of War: Ragnorok, Elden Ring, and Apex Legends are sales and critical juggernauts, but they can be a steep climb for those with slower reflexes or less free time. Big studios would benefit from diversification – more genres, shorter playtimes, less twitchy action – yet remain as conservative as ever in their approach.
Big budget games tend to fall into two camps: open ended, multiplayer games as a service (Destiny 2, Apex Legends, FIFA 23) or long running action adventure narratives (God of War: Ragnorok, The Last of Us: Part II). The former demands practice and knowledge of the latest meta to stay competitive, and the latter often takes 25 or more hours to complete. Gamers with less time and attention have an either or proposition: we stick to AAA behemoths like Elden Ring for an extended period or take more comfortable, varied pacing with smaller indie games.