As a film critic, I often find it difficult to find a critical foothold in other artistic mediums. I like a lot of music, for example, but it’s hard to speak to why, because I instinctively approach that question from a cinematic perspective, and the two mediums share very little common ground. But every so often, something that is technically not a movie uses some cinematic technique or idea in an interesting way, and I find myself conflicted about how to define it. There’s at least one short film on this list, which is by name alone considered a film, but it aired on television. Is a TV show a movie, even a full-length season? What terms do we use to define a film, anyway? This list takes several works of art from 2014 that aren’t technically films but resemble them either in form or narrative structure enough for consideration. Mostly, this is just an opportunity to gush about all my favorite 2014 things. But check any of these things out, and you won’t regret it.
The Legend of Korra, seasons 3 and 4
Your New Year’s Resolution is to watch The Legend of Korra. If you call yourself a fan of television, or visual storytelling in general, you’ve got no excuse for missing it. “Oh, but I don’t like anime!” Me neither! This isn’t anime, though it takes a few animation cues from that style. “Oh, but it’s a kid’s cartoon!” So are those Marvel movies, and plenty of grown adults have no problem watching those. And The Legend of Korra has infinitely better writing and action than all of those combined. It’s a sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which you might remember as being one of the best animated TV shows of all time. It takes place 70 years later, focusing on the next incarnation of the Avatar, a young woman named Korra. This world has four nations based around the four elements — Earth, Fire, Air, and Water — and certain people (“benders”) are born with the ability to manipulate those elements. The Avatar can manipulate all four elements and as such is responsible for maintaining balance in the world.
The final two seasons aired in 2014, but the entire series is a must-watch. Seasons 3 and 4, titled “Change” and “Balance” respectively, cemented the show’s status as an all-time great. The characters are engaging, particularly the villains. The Red Lotus, an anarchist cell which features in “Change,” were as terrifying as they were reasonable. They wanted to destroy a tyrannical monarchy, which made it hard to root against them even as they committed one terrible act of violence after another. “Balance” brought us Kuvira, a fascist dictator who was motivated as much by her own ego as by concern for her nation. These villains forced the protagonists to confront their outlook on the nature of heroism, and the battle at the end of “Change” leaves the title character emotionally scarred and physically incapacitated, the final shot a push-in on her crying in a wheelchair.
And did I mention the action scenes? The fight choreography is consistently inventive and well-executed, with each one offering a brand new twist on bending form or an adaption of it based on circumstance. The Raid 2 is garbage compared to this Nickelodeon show. And if none of that has you convinced, you should know that this is one of the most diverse shows on TV, with some of the best female characters as well. Korra is a fearless, headstrong powerhouse — imagine if Beyonce could shoot fire out of her hands — and she’s surrounded by a supporting cast of equally complex and interesting women. She’s also a POC, as are most of the characters. Oh, and the show ends with an LGBT romance. Interested yet?
Hannibal, season 2
If you liked Under the Skin, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a TV show version of it. A network television prequel to the Hannibal Lecter books sounds like an astonishingly bad idea, but creator Bryan Fuller’s commitment to poetic and elegiac imagery gives the show a nightmarish atmosphere in the truest sense of the word. Scenes of horrific violence (and there are many) are shot with elegance and respect, rather than capitalizing on shock factor. This season further cemented the show’s status as one of the best things on TV, digging deep into the relationship between secret cannibal Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and tortured FBI investigator Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Will’s superhuman capacity for empathy awakens something in Hannibal, and they find themselves in a twisted, destructive, season-long confrontation that is as much a battle as it is a romance. I can think of few other television shows, not to mention mainstream films, that are so visually daring and narratively rich. Please watch this before it gets cancelled.
Video games — the good ones, anyway — tend not to present this issue, because they take so many cues from film. The best video games apply those cues in an interactive context, giving them new meaning and potentially enhancing their power. P.T. takes a lot of its sound design and visual motifs from horror movies, but it uses them in a uniquely video-gamey way. The title stands for “Playable Teaser;” completing the game reveals that it’s an interactive trailer for the next game in the Silent Hill franchise, but it functions beautifully as a stand-alone experience. You awaken in a basement and see a door creak open. You walk through it into an empty hallway. You hear a radio broadcast reporting on a father who murdered his wife and child. You round a corner and head towards a door at the end of the hall. You go through it, walk down some stairs, go through another door, and arrive back at the beginning of the hallway. Only this time something’s different, and you aren’t allowed to leave until you figure out what. Was the bathroom door open before? Was that a face you saw inside it, or were you imagining things? Can you hear moaning, or is that the squeak of the swinging light in the foyer? And why is the light swinging back and forth?
There’s only one jump scare in P.T., and it still makes my hair stand on end just thinking about it. The game’s brilliance is in the way it capitalizes on that single major scare for the rest of the game. There are other moments that will make you jump, but in my experience, most of them were self-invented. It relies mostly on that self-induced fear, and the relatively simple puzzles are made nearly impossible by the constant fear that the ghost will be there when you turn around. But you have to turn around, and that’s why this can only work as a video game. In a movie, you can watch characters overcome their fear and persevere, but that’s no guarantee that you yourself will do the same. P.T. has terrors hidden in all kinds of places, but solving the puzzles won’t lead you to them. Your actions, and for the most part yours alone, determine how much scary stuff you see. And only your actions can get you out of that hallway once and for all.
I really struggled with whether or not to include podcasts, because their lack of visual elements makes it a real stretch to call them “films.” But Serial is hard to resist, and it’s one of the more interesting documentaries I saw…er, listened to this year. The show is about an attempt to solve a 15-year-old murder case, but the case itself is the least interesting aspect. Instead, in a kind of Errol Morris-esque way, Serial succeeds as an exploration of trust, knowledge, and truth. Why do we so often accept things as fact without thinking about it for ourselves? Host Sarah Koenig positions inmate Adnan Syed, who claims he didn’t commit the crime he’s been in prison for for half his life, as a human reminder of the consequences of blind acceptance of half-truths and fabrications. Some listeners were frustrated that the show never addressed theories and possibilities that seemed obvious to them, but Koenig couldn’t do that without ruining the entire thesis of the show. You can’t make an assertion that isn’t based in fact, especially when doing so could send an innocent man to jail. It’s a riveting and intriguing 8-hour experience.
Too Many Cooks
I laughed harder at this than at any other film I saw this year and not just because of its content. The context of this short is just as hilarious as it itself is: It aired on Adult Swim at four in the morning, without any information about what it was, who made it, or why. It was designed to be something you’d accidentally stumble upon while you fell asleep and then assumed was a dream the next morning. In any case, the short itself is a comedic masterpiece and a great metaphor for the internet’s obsession with nostalgia. As various TV genres start to collapse in on one another, each stalked by a mysterious killer, you start to realize how not-far-fetched this imaginary show is. People who are fixated on the media they remember from their childhoods want nothing more than to see it mashed up and slammed together, however violently.
Featured Image: Too Many Cooks, Adult Swim/Cartoon Network