Friday, December 29, 2023

Studicus Selects 2023

Once, long ago, I posted on the internet as Studicus, an in-joke nickname related to a skit from high school. When I first started blogging, I called my year-end entries "Studicus Selects." The tradition has continued since 2005...although I skipped 2006 for some unknown reason. 

You'll find past entries here (scroll down for the 2023 picks):

Best Howard, Howard Category. I think Howard's had a pretty successful year. Our little Chihuahua dachshund dropped a little bit of weight as recommended by his veterinarian. During the summer, he loved lying on a blanket and taking in the sun on the patio. He still experiences a bit of anxiety from time to time, and he hates being away from his mommy, but he remains, as always, the Quintessential Very Good Boy. Yes, he's a repeat winner in this category.

Howard is adept at snuggling with any blanket.

Howard with his current favorite toy, Chop-Chop.

I spent many afternoons sitting out on the porch while Howard lay on a blanket in the sun.

Just a Noble and Very Good Boy.

Snack time!

Pretty sure he was angling for some food here.

Best Turtle, Northern Map Turtle Category. After learning the surprising news last year that Willy was, in fact, a girl, we took a different approach to spring and made sure we got her out of her tank frequently to see if she needed to lay eggs. She definitely laid a few--including some in her tank--and is now in winter mode, when she sleeps more, moves less, and rarely basks. We'll still let her out for walkabouts. She also got a new canister filter this year, an upgraded model of the one we originally bought in 2017. Willy is also a repeat winner.

Willy led me on quite the odyssey through the neighborhood one afternoon.

Just a northern map turtle looking as casually as she can.

Willy laid one of her eggs on the ramp in her tank.

This is the new canister filter. Very exciting, I know.

She's never a big fan of being bothered while basking.

Most Inconvenient Moment, Four-Way Stop Category. An idiot driver rammed her SUV into Anne's car back in May. It happened at a four-way stop not far from home. No one was hurt and the car eventually got fixed. It took a month or so for the repairs, and our loaner was a Toyota RAV4. It could've been much worse, of course, and while the other driver was clearly at fault, the insurance companies reached an impasse and we had to pay our deductible. Again, could've been worse.

This is what happens when the other driver ignores the rules of right-of-way. Thanks for that, by the way.

Promised a sensible vehicle, we initially ended up with this giant Ford SUV. The rental place eventually let us swap it with a RAV4.

It was a relief to finally get the car back!

Most Inconvenient Moments, Tire Category. I thought I'd scheduled a car appointment at Skillman in Avon, except I didn't realize I'd scheduled it for the wrong Skillman by mistake. When I showed up for the appointment, I wasn't on the schedule and they couldn't squeeze me in (which is understandable). So, I headed home and less than a mile away from the four-way stop near our house, I hit a pothole and ended up with a flat tire. I was able to get the car in the next day for a new one. Then, in August, while driving on the brand-new I-65 split through downtown Indy, I hit another pothole and completely shredded the same freaking tire! A couple of people were nice enough to help me change it to the spare, and I was able to get a same-day appointment for a new tire. The rim, however, needed to be replaced.

The first flat here was pretty conventional.

This tire hit the mother of all potholes. Completely shredded, as you can see.
Best Trip, Old Hickory Category. While traveling to Tennessee for our annual family reunion, we decided to make a detour to the Hermitage, the home of Andrew Jackson. We really enjoyed going through the mansion and learning things about seventh president and his colorful life as a military commander and politician. We're glad the house itself is air conditioned for the modern era, but walking around the grounds on a hot, muggy day was a less gladsome tiding. 

Best Trip, Homecoming Category. It's been 20 years since I graduated from college. Anne and I hadn't been to Homecoming for a few years, so we decided to head back to mark the occasion. The campus looks great. Old Main looks great. Shirk Hall looked like Shirk Hall. We toured a few new spots--like a technology center, the new science building, and the e-sports facility. Just a handful of the Class of 2003 made the trip, but it was great to be back.

Anne and me on the FC campus

I missed it when President Moseley welcomed the Dalai Lama to campus, but now I feel like I was there all along.

The Wellhouse

Venerable Old Main

Johnson-Dietz--I used to live there
Biggest Project, Christmas Category. Back in college, I did a radio show called the Saturday Morning MattPack in which I played crooners like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Bobby Darin. I recorded my shows on cassette so my parents could listen to them (Franklin College's radio signal was incapable of making it to Williamsburg!), and my father has continued to listen to them for years. But tapes degrade over time, and I set off to make digital copies of the shows. I spent much of December making digital recordings of the cassettes, which I planned to give to Dad for Christmas. He can still listen to the old tapes, of course, but those digital backups will last forever-ish.

Biggest Birthday, Lordy, Lordy, Look Who's 40 Category. It was somewhat inconceivable to me when I turned 40 in 2020. It's even more inconceivable that Anne turned 40 this year! Anne's birthday and my birthday fall within eight days of each other in July, so we hold a weeklong-ish celebration called "The Festival of Anne and Matt." This year's festival included trips to see Barbie and the newest Mission: Impossible movie along with stops at the Oaken Barrel and our annual pilgrimage to Red Lobster (Anne loves the Lob, but I'm kinda "meh" on seafood, so she has me take her once a year on her birthday). She didn't want me to make a big fuss, so I didn't, but that won't stop me from writing about it here.

Best Utility Infielder, Funeral Arts Category. Anne has had quite the year at work. For a time, she was assigned to a project to help modernize the record-keeping system at several cemeteries around the area. That meant frequent trips around Indianapolis to different cemeteries to catalog things. She would spend a few weeks at one place and then move on. Her "homebase" was a downtown office. Before this project, she'd worked at a cemetery on the southwest side.

Long story short, she ended up going back to the original cemetery because the person hired to replace her simply couldn't hack it there. She constantly messed things up, communicated poorly, and often yelled at people on the phone. Anne's former coworkers--now again her current coworkers--basically flashed the "Anne Signal" and are overjoyed to have her back! 

The Year in Writing. This wasn't the most productive year I've had from a writing standpoint, but I did manage to finish a book based on my experiences in college radio. The basic plot is my take on an '80s-style "slobs vs. snobs" comedy (think Caddyshack or Revenge of the Nerds) but set in 2000 at a small college in Fairlane, Indiana. Everything is a stand-in for Franklin College. The story revolves around a power-mad trustee who wants to turn the campus' non-commercial alternative rock station into a commercial news-talk station. Hilarity, I hope, ensues.
This is a temporary cover for a proof copy.
I'm not sure if I'll try to get it published or pull a Sega CD Summer and do it myself. 

Best Anniversary, Movie Category. Return of the Jedi turned 40 this year. The movie hit theaters on May 25, 1983. This has always been my favorite Star Wars movie. It was the first one I saw and one of the first memories I have of going to the movie theater. I grew up obsessed with Star Wars, and Jedi was the primary reason for that. To celebrate the anniversary, I wrote a post about the movie and also penned six original pieces of fan fiction (with accompanying commentaries) to celebrate the milestone and Jedi's influence on this Star Wars fan. You can find it all here. Disney/Lucasfilm also treated fans to a re-release in April.

The most popular short story turned out to be "An Older Code," if you were wondering.

Movies Year in Review. As I did last year, I'll split my long list of entertainment stuff into two sections: movies we saw at the theater and stuff we watched via streaming. Let's start with the movies first. As usual, there may be some spoilers.

Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania. The third movie in the Ant-Man series reached for something epic and fell short. It was enjoyable enough--Paul Rudd is always fun--but the attempt at sweeping narrative stakes doesn't work with this particular character, who excels with smaller, lighter adventures.

Return of the Jedi. Still rules.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. This was a solid wrap for the misfits in the Guardians crew. Packed with humor, action, and heart, it's one of the better MCU movies in the latest round. It's also very, very sad at times. Some very tough moments of animal abuse make it a difficult watch, and there was one moment in which everyone at my screening broke down in tears. You need a strong constitution to watch it, and even then, I doubt you'll want to revisit it.

The Little Mermaid. I almost forgot this movie came out this year. It's The Little Mermaid except with people. You've got talking, singing sea creatures. They attempt to give Prince Eric a meatier backstory and he gets an absolutely mediocre song.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. The sequel is just as imaginative and fun as its predecessor, delivering a story that spans the multiverse while delivering great characterization and plenty of surprises. Miles is a tremendous character, and it's nice to see him get his time in the spotlight--a spotlight he shares with infinite Spider-Men and Spider-Women.

The Flash. A quick aside: when I went to see this one with my buddy Krildog, the movie cut off about 30 minutes in. We'd been warned beforehand of problems with the projector, decided to risk it, and ended up with a couple complimentary movie passes before being shuffled off to a different showing and picking up the action from there.

He's Batman. Forever.
As for the movie itself, I thought it was a heartfelt exploration of love and loss--how we're not necessarily equipped to handle things we wish we could change. It was also great to see Michael Keaton back in action as Batman--Batman '89 still has a place place in my heart--and I found the movie very enjoyable with a heartbreaking ending. Your mileage will vary based on your tolerance for Ezra Miller and some...interesting...CGI choices, but I think it's worth a watch.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Harrison Ford returns as his signature character for the final, final, final Indiana Jones movie. This one is about a fading hero who finds himself unable to change with the times around him. Pressed into duty one last time, Indy teams up with his goddaughter to prevent Nazis from acquiring a device purported to find "fissures in time." Though initially very grumpy, Indy does find some of his trademark charm and the movie takes a big swing at the end.

Dr. Jones
That big swing is definitely a better finale than "interdimensional beings" taking off for those "spaces between the spaces." It's more fantastical than the opening of the Ark, Temple of Doom's bridge sequence, or the discovery of the Holy Grail. They definitely went for it here, and I respect that.

Part of me, however, wishes the movie just took place in the classic Indy vs. Nazis era of the incredibly satisfying opening sequence.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. The Transformers movie continuity is pretty much mush, but it doesn't really matter. This is a solid entry in the series, not as charming as Bumblebee, but still a good time. I'm sure fans of Beast Wars really got a thrill out of it, but I'm a Generation One guy at heart, so I say Peter Cullen forever. 

Mission: Impossible -- Dead Reckoning, Part One. A dumb title for a great movie. Unfortunately, Ethan Hunt and company got swallowed up by Barbenheimer at the box office, but you shouldn't miss this entry on the long-running "Tom Cruise tries to kill himself on camera" subgenre. The MacGuffin isn't necessarily great--we've seen the killer computer thing before--but crackling action sequences give the whole thing life. Plus, Henry Czerny is back as Kittridge!

I had no use for Ryan Gosling until Blade Runner 2049 and Barbie
Barbie. As the unexpected smash of the summer, we'll be dealing with this pop culture phenomenon for years. Margot Robbie brought Barbie to life, but for me, it was Ryan Gosling's Ken who brought life to the movie. His put-upon Ken was highly entertaining, delivering unto us the earworm "I'm Just Ken" and his Mojo Dojo Casa House. Oh, the movie also has plenty to say about gender roles and society, so it's not just empty calories. Low-key MVP: Michael Cera. 

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3. They made another one. It was cute.

The Marvels. This one landed with a resounding thud at the box office, serving as a cautionary tale for a brand that's churned out some mediocre shows and movies lately. Two of the three main characters required viewers to sink several hours into TV shows to care about them and their backstories. Generally, it was fine and I would watch it again. But even its most "out there" idea--a planet where the native language is singing--felt undercooked, as if the filmmakers liked the idea but either didn't want to or weren't fully allowed to commit to it. For X-Men fans, though, the mid-credits sequence was pretty awesome. 

Napoleon. Hmmm. Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix team up to bring us a bloated biopic about the famed military commander and French emperor. It's kind of unfocused and requires a little more geopolitical knowledge of the time period than most viewers will possess. I found it to be kind of a slog myself, keeping this figure of history at a decided distance.

Streaming Year in Review. We definitely spent a lot more time watching stuff at home than we did at the movie theater. 

Night Court. NBC resurrected Night Court, a staple of syndicated afternoon programming for my brother and me in the 80s and 90s. The new show followed the "rebootquel" format (or "legacy reboot") in which new characters are thrust into the same setting/world as a popular intellectual property with a character or two from the original version included as mentor figures.

The new Night Court drew decent ratings. I liked most of the characters and was glad to see John Larroquette back as Dan Fielding. I think the new show is enjoyable enough, tapping into some of that manic Night Court energy even though it lacks Harry Stone, Bull Shannon, Mac Robinson, and Christine Sullivan.

Perhaps the best thing about the new Night Court is that it gave Anne and me an excuse to rewatch the old Night Court, which is available on Freevee, Amazon's ad-supported streaming service. We very much enjoyed getting reacquainted with the old gang, and it was clear the old formula still worked. The show also gave us this incredible screenshot:

Rest assured, this had something to do with Dan Fielding
Frasier. Someone else got the rebootquel treatment this year--one Frasier Crane. His new show on Paramount Plus sent Dr. Crane from Seattle back to Boston to reconnect with his son. It's pretty clear what the show is going for here, portraying Freddy as a blue-collar firefighter in the vein of Frasier's father, with Frasier's penchant for high society setting up another cultural clash. While Niles and Daphne are nowhere to be seen, their son (Frasier's nephew) takes on the role of the show's nebbish character.

We have yet to make it through the new version of Frasier, mostly because we decided to watch the old Frasier and then go back to the sequel series. I can't imagine the new show touching the heights of the original one, which is absolutely brilliant and packed with memorable, lovable characters. The chemistry between Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce, in particular, is something you can't easily replicate, and John Mahoney is irreplaceable. 

Ahsoka. I'm not sure how more casual Star Wars fans will feel about Ahsoka. The show is really more of a sequel to Rebels and The Clone Wars than it is an expansion of the Mandalorian universe. Yes, the new Star Wars canon reintroduced Ahsoka in The Mandalorian, but the other characters in the show originated elsewhere.

To people who've only seen the Star Wars movies, the character of Ahsoka doesn't make much sense. When did Anakin have a Padawan? Why didn't he ever mention her in Revenge of the Sith? Who is Sabine Wren? Why is she important? Who's this Ezra guy everyone seems so worried about? The green Twi'lek lady? Who is Thrawn and why is he such a threat?

The show doesn't spend much time answering these questions and expects the audience to be up-to-date on just about everything. Personally, I liked the show, but I've seen Rebels and have a passing knowledge of The Clone Wars. Finding Ezra was A Big Deal and seeing Grand Admiral Thrawn was The Big Deal for this longtime Star Wars fan.

I've wanted to see this guy in the flesh since 1991
Star Wars introduced me to Thrawn in 1991, when Heir to the Empire hit bookshelves and took us back to a galaxy far, far away. He was just as terrifying as Darth Vader, although he intimidated enemies through his intellect instead of any Dark Side prowess. A truly great villain, he first returned in animated form in Rebels. It was a thrill to see him become part of "real" Star Wars.

If I had any criticism of Ahsoka, it was that Ray Stevenson's Baylan Skoll was perhaps the show's most interesting character, yet it didn't do enough with him. I think the intention was to follow Skoll into a second season, but Stevenson died last year, which will likely leave the character's journey unfulfilled unless the show recasts him. That lack of fulfillment isn't the show's fault--no one could have known Ray Stevenson would die--but failing to fulfill the promise of the character when a second season is never guaranteed is certainly a misstep. 

The Mandalorian. I'd almost forgotten this show's third season aired in 2023. It seems like such a long time ago! This time, Mando and Grogu team up with other outcast Mandalorians to reclaim their homeworld.

It felt like some of the "side trip" episodes stalled momentum on the show's overarching plotline, but that's really nothing new for The Mandalorian, which sometimes eschews serialized storytelling in favor of a more episodic approach. But the finale really landed, and it's always terrific to see Mando and Grogu together.

A Haunting in Venice. The third outing with Kenneth Branagh as the famed Hercule Poirot takes place in Venice, as the title suggests. This mystery involves a seance and a murder, with Poirot skeptical that supernatural forces are at play. Branagh is good in the role, but I'm not sure if any more of these movies are necessary.

Fast X. The Fast franchise gets bigger, louder, and dumber with its latest sequel. We didn't get the chance to see this one in the theater, and that's fine. Sure, we missed out on some of the big-screen spectacle, but the movie was kind of a mess. At least the ever-reliable Jason Momoa got the chance to vamp around with the Fast crew. Try not to get too pissed off by the absurd cliffhanger of an ending.

Shazam: Fury of the Gods. Shazam is back. This time, he's ticked off some gods. Another box-office failure for the fizzling DCEU/Snyderverse. It still has some entertaining moments, and is worth a look on a lazy afternoon.

Blue Beetle. This DC movie also tanked at the box office. The Blue Beetle is a longtime comic book character--a kind of gadget-based Batman who's had a few different versions. I found this one enjoyable, with some earnest performances from the cast and a nice family-centric story. It's a little formulaic, though, and brings little new to the genre.

65. Adam Driver fights dinosaurs. The dude is always watchable and gives it his all, whether he's in a blockbuster, arthouse cinema, or a cheesy actioner. 

A truly glorious purpose...
Loki. Season 2 gave us more Tom Hiddleston, and I will never complain about that. The guy owns the screen as Loki, giving us some of the best MCU stuff of the year (although that bar is admittedly a bit low this year). Some great supporting players (Owen Wilson, Ke Huy Quan, Sophia Di Martino, and am I allowed to say Jonathan Majors?) complemented Hiddleston well, and the finale was the culmination of a fantastic character arc that saw Avengers Loki, over the course of two seasons, because something greater.

Secret Invasion. This should've been fantastic. Marvel's inability to turn a show with Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury into something entertaining says a lot about the current state of all things MCU.

Dark Winds. This AMC show is definitely worth watching with compelling characters and a moody atmosphere. Based on a series of mystery novels set in the Southwest, the show follows Navajo police officers as they try to unravel a conspiracy. Zahn McClarnon gives a great performance. 

Reservation Dogs. This FX show's third and final season follows a quartet of indigenous teens in Oklahoma on a series of misadventures. It's heartfelt, authentic, hilarious, and emotional. It's a shame we won't get more of these characters, but sometimes it's best to leave on top. And this show did. Dark Winds' Zahn McClarnon has a supporting role in the show.

Gen V. This spinoff of Amazon's The Boys is coarse and inappropriate like its progenitor. Gen V gives us some likable characters and a compelling central mystery. You'll find the requisite gross-out jokes, this time in a college setting, so if you can stomach The Boys, you know what to expect.

The Bear. I'm not exactly a "high art" guy, but this show is a hit with critics and people who like TV, a crossover audience that doesn't always intersect. Filled with memorable characters and tense moments, the show gave us a couple of this year's best episodes, with "Forks" and "Fishes" both topping some Best of 2023 lists.

The murder-solving trio
Only Murders in the Building. Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez return for another season of madcap mystery fun in New York. This time, Paul Rudd is the murder victim, and while one of the central twists of the show is a little predictable, the journey makes it all worth it.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. No matter your age, there is some permutation of TMNT that'll click for you. This version cribs its art style from Across the Spider-Verse, and it's a fun watch. The Turtles have terrific chemistry, and there all kinds of little nods longtime fans will enjoy.

BS High. This incredible documentary makes you want to punch a wall one minute and laugh the next. It's about Bishop Sycamore, a "high school" that somehow conned some of the country's top prep teams to put its football team on the schedule. But the school didn't exist and the players got taken for quite the ride by an unreliable, lying coach. 

Jury Duty. This Freevie show fabricated a trial and cast a regular guy to star in what he believed to be a documentary about jury duty and the court system. I don't think the premise will ever work again, but my goodness, did it strike gold. Things get more and more out of hand throughout the proceedings, and James Marsden's inclusion--playing a heightened, spoiled actor version of himself--absolutely landed. The show is full of laugh-out-loud moments.