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Every year, we talk about what we loved about the past 12 months of geeky entertainment. It’s usually under the guise of discussing what to honor with our Escapist Awards, but we always seem to gravitate toward that list of five unique things that especially moved us this year. It could be cute, it could be have emotional impact, it could be just downright silly, but each of the things on these lists means something to us.

Here’s what the writers from the Movies and TV channel picked for their five favorite things from 2014.

From the desk of Marla Desat:

Reflecting back on the movies and televisions shows I loved in 2014, it’s the big fight scenes that come to my mind. The episodes and films that beckon me back to watch over and over again weren’t just about well-choreographed action sequences, but also built an interesting world and empathetic characters around those fights. That kind of effortless world building adds weight to the action, and my list of favorites this year is all about delivering incredible worlds.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy

I can’t stop quoting Guardians of the Galaxy. I get giddy whenever I hear one of the songs off its soundtrack. It’s a joyful space adventure, living somewhere in my mind between Firefly and Galaxy Quest. Of all the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe it is the only one that has inspired my friends to start reading comics. It dives willingly into the strangest cosmic spheres of Marvel Comics, and does it with enough swagger and confidence that it manages to make a dance-off a convincing final fight (well, distraction). From the almost slapstick fighting styles of Peter Quill and Groot, to Rocket’s propensity for explosions, Gamora’s expert precision, and Draxx’s unbridled power, these misfit heroes stole my heart. And who can say no to baby Groot?

4. Outlander “Sassenach”

Of all the fantasy and romance novels that I’ve read, I never quite expected Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander to be made into a television series. I thought it might become an underwhelming movie someday, packing the events of the first book into ninety minutes of Hollywood romance. Instead, the Outlander series delivers a slow build, effectively translating the time-traveling romance from book to screen with an impeccable understanding of its fans. I love how slowly the premiere progresses, devoting its first half to spending time with Claire and her husband Frank as they reconnect after the war, showing us the details of their sex life as they rebuild their relationship. It’s not rushed, and it means that when Claire is whisked back in time, we share her sadness at his absence. Even more, the jarring change in accent and language, culture, and even clothing is given time to develop. The willingness to tell this story slowly makes this not only a fantastic adaptation, but also an outstanding television series.

3. John Wick

Make all the “I know Kung Fu” jokes you like, this Keanu Reeves action flick won’t flinch. As a hyper competent but retired hitman for the Russian mob, John Wick lives quietly until some mobster punks steal his car and kill his dog. I’m a sucker for revenge stories, and this one stalks towards its conclusion with relentless confidence. It builds a fully imagined and broad underworld effortlessly through characters, locations, and their interactions, without resorting to straight exposition. Once Wick has his motivation, the film is all breathtaking shots of brutal one-against-the-mob fights. Wick uses expert wrestling and handgun skills to efficiently dispatch his enemies. It’s gritty and deep enough without putting it all in your face, with big satisfying fights that don’t hide the action with cuts or blurring. It’s the kind of movie that, as a child, I’d rewind on VHS to watch the same moves over and over again before trying them out on my brother.

2. Lucy

I’ve spoken before about how much I enjoyed this movie, and how ignoring the misconception at its center — that we only use 10% of our brains — is a fundamental part of my enjoyment. If you consider it either a metaphor or a gross error by Morgan Freeman’s character, Professor Samuel Norman, what remains is one of the most interesting action flicks of the year. Scarlett Johansson, as Lucy, goes through a slow evolution from party girl to calculated, efficient killer to a solemn, selfless being. That evolution takes the standard action movie progression a step further, committing itself to exploring a science fiction premise. I went in expecting an action movie that would deliver on the promise of fantastic-drug-gives-protagonist-the-power-to-kick-ass with a series of jaw-shattering fights, and instead it asks: what is the best use of knowledge?

The movie suffers from some faults (other than the obvious 10% problem). Its Korean mobsters are flat and stereotypical, and as further salt in that wound the background set dressing makes big errors, with its background graffiti reading like a takeout menu. As a sci-fi character study though, it managed to really enthrall me. If we do expand the power of our minds — through drugs, like Lucy, or through gene manipulation or technology – to what ends do we use that power? Lucy uses her new skills first for self-protection, and then for convenience and violent revenge, but by the time Lucy reaches its climactic fight, her purpose has changed. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is illustrated beautifully in how she deals with the final fight, and her last actions are choosing betterment of mankind through shared knowledge.

1. Game of Thrones “The Mountain and the Viper”

Every moment of “The Mountain and the Viper” makes me grin. The Boltons are scheming, the wildlings are at the wall, Sansa starts to play the game, Jorah Mormont falls out of favor with Daenerys, and Arya laughs at her misfortune. And, of course, the Viper fights the Mountain. The great character moments and that painful judicial battle make this my favorite television episode of the year.

Watching Pedro Pascal trade barbs with the Lannisters as Oberyn Martell this season was bittersweet. Having read A Song of Ice and Fire, I knew that every great scene with Oberyn was one more step towards his grisly death. Still, I eagerly anticipated the fight between Oberyn and Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, and it definitely satisfied. I loved how Oberyn tries to toy with Gregor, and how Gregor rejects precision for power. I could talk for hours about how the difference in their choice of weapons influences their range and targets, and how their armor affects the same (and if you love historical combat as much as me, you’ll love martial arts instructor Matt Easton’s review of the fight). For me, this fight is the core of the season, the critical event that changes Tyrion’s life forever and also has far-reaching implications for Westeros, and Dorne in particular. Though, to be honest, I still can’t think of the sound of Clegane crushing Oberyn’s skull without flinching.

Those are my Movies and TV favorites for 2014: a lot of action with a dash of romance! And I didn’t even bring up Arrow, which consistently delivers great fight scenes, or Captain America: Winter Soldier, my favorite serious Marvel flick so far. Now, to finally start watching True Detective

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From the desk of Dan Epstein:

As the year winds down to a close, it’s important that we take stock of the wild ride that was 2014. Marvel continued to parade all over the silver screen, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 fought a battle that has yet to be concluded, and evidently we can land robots on comets. With all the headline-grabbing milestones and attention hoarders, understandably there are some films that you might not have seen. Maybe you didn’t have time, maybe your friend told you they weren’t worth your time. With all due respect to your friend and their “Questionable” taste, here’s a list of my 5 favorite films from the year that you might not have seen, but definitely should.

5. Chef

Robert Downy Jr. and Jon Favreau are in it. That alone should be enough to pique your interest, and then this film goes further. Favreau uses the analogue of the restaurant industry to comment on the film industry. Favreau rants about how “Dish after dish” are bland and repetitive, and he would rather create innovative yet exotic tastes. Replace dish with film and you can see this film as a full-on commentary by a talented director on the film industry. Plus his good pal Robert Downy Jr. is in it! GO SEE IT!

4. Boyhood

This is that film you briefly heard about but decided not to see. Let me try to change your mind on that choice. The story itself isn’t entirely novel, but it is done well. A boy’s life and those lives surrounding him are chronicled for a period of time from boyhood to adulthood. The clincher is that while normally a film would use several actors of various age ranges to convey the passage of time, this film was made over an 11 year time frame. The same actors were used and their age progression was real. The immersion that brings elevates what otherwise would have been a forgettable film into something truly special. Worth a watch, as there’s nothing else like it.

3. Birdman

This one gets a bit meta, with Michael Keaton playing an actor whose best known work was playing “Birdman” years earlier. If you notice a parallel between Keaton’s role and his real life, well then you’re in on the meta joke. Edited to appear as one continuous take, this film is trippy and fun. Even Edward Norton brings his indie A-game not seen since Death to Smoochy. This film did get a wide release, but its odd premise and reliance on people getting the meta-joke (but you already do, don’t you?) keeps it from fully being an obvious viewing choice by the masses. If nothing else, see it for Michael Keaton having “Conversations” with his Birdman persona, who sounds an awful lot like another caped hero we know.

2. Edge of Tomorrow

This film’s weakness was its name. The book that it was based off of was titled All You Need Is Kill, which is a name that confuses and infuriates me. Then Edge of Tomorrow was the best that Hollywood could come up with for a film that is essentially Groundhog Day meets Halo. It’s funny, it’s action-packed, and the time travel is portrayed in editing so perfectly that it had the potential of revitalizing Tom Cruise as a bankable action star. On DVD you might see the movie’s cover showing Live, Die, Repeat which was originally the film’s tag line. Upon realizing that makes a far better title, they’ve shoved the true title into the corner and plastered this better one in huge letters. Don’t let this one pass you by, it’s an absolute pleasure of a film.

1. Snowpiercer

Many of you might not have seen this because it didn’t have a wide theatrical release. In fact, on IMDB the film shows as a 2013 release date in South Korea, but not until late June of 2014 did the US see it. A South Korean director taking source material from a French graphic novel, the Weinstein brothers wanted to cut out massive chunks of plot and add an explanatory voice over for us dumb Americans. When Bong Joon-ho, director of The Host, refused the Blade Runner-ication of his film, the Weinsteins only gave a limited release as punishment. Joke’s on them, as Netflix and DVD sales are proving this film a sleeper hit. Without giving away spoilers, it’s an excellent film. The visual style is rich and deep, the world building is unique and frightening, and the film stays with you long after it’s done. I highly recommend a viewing, especially since it’s on Netflix instant currently.

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From the desk of Elizabeth Harper

5. The Blacklist

The Blacklist is a procedural, bad-guy-of-the-week police drama that makes a real effort to rise above its station — and sometimes even succeeds. It watches more like a Hollywood thriller than an episodic TV show, but it also falls into some standard Hollywood traps (and tropes) with a cookie-cutter main character and a supporting cast that could be interesting, but isn’t always very well developed.

But I don’t tune in to watch this every week to find out what crime the exceedingly dull main character will stumble on this episode. I tune in for James Spader as master criminal Red Reddington, who’s working with the FBI to help put the baddest of the bad — which, coincidentally, includes a laundry list of his personal enemies — in jail. Spader plays one heck of a villain, who pulls everyone’s strings with words or with violence as the moment requires. Is he a good guy? Is he a bad guy? We don’t really know, and that makes him fascinating to watch. Sure, it’s not always great TV, but every moment James Spader is on screen is pure TV gold… and it’s worth watching the rest of it to enjoy those moments.

4. Hannibal

Unlike The Blacklist’s Red, there’s no question that Hannibal is the bad guy of this particular series — but the fact that you know that while the characters in the show don’t makes every moment filled with tension. What will Hannibal do next? (And what exactly is that on his dinner table?)

Though the show is intensely, often graphically, violent, it’s put together to make every shot a work of art. From blood spray to the dinner settings on Hannibal’s table, everything on screen is a thing of beauty… and knowing the often dark origins of that beauty makes it all the more uneasy to watch. For better or worse, once you tune in to Hannibal, it’s difficult to tune out again because you just have to know what happens next.

Of course a show can’t live on cinematography alone — no matter how pretty — and Hannibal backs those shots with top-notch acting and edge-of-your-seat storylines.

3. Elementary

There’s been plenty of debate between fans over which modern adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mythos is better, and let me settle it right now: Elementary is better than Sherlock. Sure, both are good series, but Elementary’s take on Holmes makes him a bit warmer than adaptations like Sherlock and House, which makes Elementary feel like a new angle on a character who’s become very much a trope. Now airing its third season, Elementary has consistently had great acting and engaging stories so if your’e overdue for a Sherlock fix, you should definitely give this series a chance.

Also there’s Lucy Liu as Watson, and while I like Martin Freeman’s take on the character, it’s Lucy Liu as Watson. There’s just no beating that.

2. The Tale of Princess Kaguya

This is the most beautiful movie Studio Ghibli has ever made. The animation style has a hand-drawn quality, which really serves to bring this fairy tale (and the emotions behind it) to life. Though I saw it in the theater with subtitles, this is an anime I’d recommend watching dubbed simply because it will let your eyes fully absorb the animation — trust me, it’s worth it.

1. Big Hero 6

This flick is everything I love about Marvel movies distilled into 100 minutes of animation. The story feels like some kind of mash-up of Iron Man and The Avengers, story-wise, but the unique cast of characters prevents it from feeling like a simple rehash. And those characters offer something Marvel hasn’t yet: diversity. Not only does the team have two female heroes, neither of whom are objectified as sex objects, but the two are very different: one of them is presented as a tomboy while the other is more of a standard “girly” character. But both are presented as smart, essential to the team, and heroes in their own way. It’s nice to see a movie that says not only that women can be heroes, but they don’t have to fit into any particular mold to do so.

But even if you’re not interested in that messaging, Big Hero 6 is a really great superhero movie. And, for true believers, there’s even a Stan Lee cameo. Excelsior!

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From the desk of Mike Hoffman

5. Archer: Archer Vice — “The Rules of Extraction”

Archer, the animated comedy spy series, took a major turn in season five when the ISIS (not that ISIS) team was shut down and turned to selling off a stockpile of cocaine. The resulting season, dubbed Archer Vice, wasn’t always well received, but “The Rules of Extraction” proved to be the exception. Trapped in a South American jungle, careless Archer, flamboyant Ray, and mostly useless Cyril find themselves at the mercy of drug runners, corrupt police and the vicious wildlife.

“Rules” was not only the best episode of the season, but serves as the perfect example of everything the show does right. Lighting quick pacing, perfect joke delivery, Archer’s obsessions (crocodiles, in this episode), and actual satire (unlike certain other adult animated sitcoms that use the satire defense). Not only did “Rules” include all the elements of a great Archer script, but it also had amazing animation that reminds us why it takes a year to animate a single season.

The episode delivered iconic moments of honesty about Archer’s character, as well. Sure, “Rules” had everything a great episode of Archer needs, but it also explored what fundamentally makes Sterling Archer, the world’s most dangerous spy, so fearless: contempt for his own mortality.

4. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Episodes 17-22

Remember the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series premiere? Fantastic ratings and reviews; it looked like Marvel had done it again! Then the series spent 14 episodes telling stories and building mysteries, but all of it seemed kind of half-hearted. It was like showrunners Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon were just treading water.

Then Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out and we realized they were treading water. What followed were six episodes that were quick, suspenseful, exciting and, on occasion, heartbreaking. Nearly everything that had come up in the previous episodes came into play somehow and rewatching the early season became a treat now that we knew what was going on the whole time. I can’t fault anyone for giving up on the show before episode 17, but they really missed out on something great.

The show shifted into its new format perfectly after the massive events of The Winter Soldier, and the cast feels even more at home as agents without an agency. The only downside to AoS being forced to work on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s problems (to fit within Marvel’s overarching narrative) was the inability to address other puzzles the show introduced. Luckily, by now almost all of those mysteries have been addressed in the show’s second season.

3. The Legend of Korra — “Korra Alone”

The Avatar — the hero of the entire world — takes three years to heal from the battle at the end of the third season. “Korra Alone” chronicles the majority of that process, and even at the time of this writing it’s unclear if she’s fully recovered.

It takes Korra two years to get up and moving from her wheelchair, but the Avatar still can’t hold her own in combat, haunted by visions of the deadly fight with anarchist Zaheer. “Korra Alone” takes her around the globe, looking for answers while barred from returning to those she loves by a mysterious “Shadow Korra”. Haunted by this apparition, she finds herself in an underground fighting match and later in a mysterious swamp.

Taking Korra on this journey gave viewers one of the most beautiful episodes of series, with art in every setting the show has to offer. Framing these visuals is some the best music the series has, supporting the emotional narrative of Korra searching for a way to heal. After all that, ending the episode with the major reveal of a returning character cemented “Korra Alone” as not only the best episode of this series, but possibly also of its precursor, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

At the end of this movie, Sam Wilson sees the file Steve Rogers is looking at and realizes it’s about the Winter Soldier. Immediately, Sam averts his eyes. He already knows he’s going to tag along, to help Captain America find the assassin, but he still respects the privacy of what that folder contains. It’s one of dozens of moments that are easy to miss but contain so much about the characters, their histories and their relationships.

The Winter Soldier could have been a decent action movie with super spies and explosions, but we also got a suspenseful drama with fully realized characters. Both the cast and crew brought nuance to this comic book movie that can make a surprisingly tender character out of a deadly spy, a super soldier or a brainwashed assassin. It’s impressive work from the Russo brothers, a directing duo whose biggest film credit before this was You, Me and Dupree.

With the Russo brothers in the running to direct the third and fourth Avengers movies, I’m sure there’s something they’d like to say to Avengers director Joss Whedon: “On your left.”

If you don’t understand why Captain America: The Winter Soldier is on this list over that other Marvel Studios film, go watch it again. And look for the little things.

1. Hannibal – “Mizumono”

Hannibal is the best show on television right now. (Fight me!) It’s dark, twisted and brutal but also hilarious, thoughtful and gorgeous. Like, seriously beautiful. A tower of bodies structured as a totem pole shouldn’t look like a piece of art, but Hannibal does it. It’s an unpredictable psychological thriller that, sadly, might be too graphic, too dark and too smart to stay on NBC after the next season.

The second season ended with one of the most painful and memorable hours of television I’ve seen. “Mizumono” skillfully dangles the main character, Will Graham, between his FBI wrangler (Laurence Fishburne) and his cannibalistic serial killer mentor Hannibal Lecter (if you thought no one could top Anthony Hopkins in the role, you need to see what Mads Mikkelsen does with the character).

The entire series had exercised restraint in revealing the predatory nature of Lecter, and when he finally goes full monster in the second season finale, it hits you in the gut like a linoleum knife. And thanks to the brutally unpredictable nature of the show, there’s little we can assume about the upcoming fallout from this episode’s events.

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From the desk of Marshall Lemon

For years, critics bemoaned the lack of original ideas of movies. Well, you know what? It’s 2014, and anyone still saying so can knock off that noise. There are a ton of fantastic films presenting some amazingly unique ideas, or failing that, repackaging the old ideas in some very exciting ways. Action movie fans have John Wick. Comedy lovers have Neighbors. Serious drama types have Gone Girl. We’ve seen so many fantastic movies over the past 12 months that critics are going to have a tough time sorting through them all.

Speaking personally however, I found myself drawn to 2014’s many epic blockbusters, a genre revitalized with unique concepts, fantastic performances, and a fair share of self-aware humor. While there were certainly many to choose from, here are my top five of the year:

5. Big Hero 6

By pure chance, I somehow managed to avoid almost every preview for Big Hero 6, knowing only that it had something to do with robots. When I finally watched it, I was transfixed for its entire runtime, feeling overwhelming joy at its seamless combination of science and superheroics. With all due respect to Iron Man, these are characters who truly fit the science hero mold, designing costumes based on their scientific pursuits at the local robotics university.

Every character here is fantastically portrayed, and I sincerely hope for a sequel so we can see more of them. But its most stunning achievement goes to Scott Adsit as Baymax, the companion robot turned superhero who becomes the emotional core of the team. A lot of sci-fi superheroes take a cool concept and bend the science to match it, but Baymax perfectly commits to the opposite approach, using emerging technology to build an engaging character. Despite a very limited emotional range, Baymax’s design and Adsit’s delivery are so fully realized that you can’t help but consider him one of Big Hero 6‘s most beloved personalities.

4. Edge of Tomorrow

A return to form for Tom Cruise? Video game logic in movie form? Groundhog Day with aliens? It doesn’t matter how you describe Edge of Tomorrow (or whatever you feel like calling it), this is one of the best action movies this year, and certainly one of the most developed sci-fi concepts of the decade. Cruise plays as William Cage, a cowardly officer forced onto the battlefield of an alien invasion, only to be granted the ability to reset time with each death he suffers. It’s a simple time travel concept that Edge of Tomorrow fully develops, showing how everything from battle scenes, to character interactions, to halfway-humorous death sequences would look from his reality-altering perspective.

Cruise himself was a fantastic choice for this role, striking the perfect balance between developing an interesting character arc while keeping the rich sci-fi premise front and center. (The role could easily have gone to, say, Will Smith a few years ago, which would have made for a very different film.) His novice-turned-badass tale is balanced by Emily Blunt’s Rita Vrataski, a warrior whose humanity was almost completely buried across her own time jumps, but is slowly revealed across several deaths and resurrections. Sadly this movie didn’t get the audience it deserved due to competition from X-Men: Days of Future Past and Maleficent, but it’s absolutely worth watching during the holidays if you haven’t already.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy already had everyone’s attention for two reasons: being the latest film from the unstoppable juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and featuring a firearms-wielding space raccoon. For some, that made Guardians seem jarringly out-of-place from past Marvel entries, but the finished product proved itself well worth the hype.

There are all kinds of things to love about this movie, from a highly memorable soundtrack to action set pieces that keep veering into slapstick comedy. But Guardians’ most endearing quality is, well, the Guardians themselves. Like how Drax can’t grasp metaphors. Or how Rocket and Groot turn the Han Solo/Chewbacca dynamic on its head. Or how Star Lord clings to the memories of his mother. Or how Gamora finds friendship after years of Thanos’s destructive philosophy. Pretty much every fantastic thing this movie produces extends from these engaging characters, and seeing more of them is the main reason we’re super excited for the prospect of Guardians of the Galaxy 2.

Now go ahead and watch the obligatory dancing sapling video.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America‘s sequel had a lot to live up to, meeting not only the explosive expectations of The Avengers but showing how Steve Rogers would adapt to the 21st Century. The Winter Soldier not only pulled this off with flying colors, it did so in a way that surpassed its predecessor without compromising any element of Cap’s 1940s persona in the process. And along the way, it overturned our entire concept of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s canon up to that point, compromising SHIELD’s origins and hinting at Stephen “Sorcerer Supreme” Strange without once derailing the plot to do so.

After sticking to the sidelines for several films, Nick Fury gets to participate in a far more direct way. Black Widow reveals more of her personality than ever before. The Winter Soldier gets an origin with bigger implications that the original comic book storyline allowed for. At the center of it all is Steve Rogers: A genuinely upstanding human being willing to stand against any threat, physical or ideological.

And by the time we’ve fully digested this film’s implications for the MCU, Age of Ultron and Civil War will probably flip Cap’s life around once again. If they come anything close to what Winter Soldier achieved, then I can’t freaking wait.

1. The LEGO Movie

I’ve immensely enjoyed the LEGO video games, so I already thought The LEGO Movie had the potential to be a solid film. What I didn’t expect was for it to be my favorite movie of 2014 until I sat down to watch it. The LEGO Movie is massive tribute to pretty much every beloved childhood genre you can imagine, from superheroes, to fantasy magic, to cutsey animal cartoons, to science-fiction (SPACESHIP). And somehow, somehow, The LEGO Movie tied it together for a story highlighting the importance of childhood play while critiquing heavy-handed copyright policies.

Not that you’re necessarily spending time thinking about the deeper implications of The LEGO Movie. Instead you’re probably snickering as Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Morgan Freeman’s Vitruvius get confused about each other’s identities. Or laughing while Will Arnett lampoons decades of grimdark Batman tropes. Or completely losing your mind in hysterics as Unikitty cuts loose or when Benny finally gets to build his spaceship. And that’s only scratching the surface of the amazing things packed into The LEGO Movie‘s runtime.

I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to this movie, everything is awesome.

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From the desk of Carly Smith

5. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is the comedic anime of this year. It’s packed tight into 12 episodes, and keeps the humor coming. A romantic comedy, this anime begins with a girl named Chiyo Sakura who tries to confess her love to her crush, Umetarou Nozaki, but accidentally says she’s his fan. He writes her an autograph under a penname, leaving her to wonder why he did such a thing. Turns out he’s the writer and illustrator for a romance series featured in a girls’ magazine! Chiyo, also an artist, becomes his assistant and meets some of his wacky friends, who also assist Nozaki with his manga.

Some episodes are better than others, and if you’re unfamiliar with tropes in anime, manga, and games, you might miss some of the humor. One of the best episodes takes on dating sim tropes to excellent effect. However, other jokes are accessible to everyone. Nozaki’s deadpan yet ridiculous actions are hilarious contrast, as are Sakura’s reactions. Furthermore, the series isn’t afraid to play with gender roles. Nozaki bases the characters in his manga on people in his life, and his male friends are often the more demure or “tsundere” female characters while the women he knows are the male characters. One female character Nozaki and Sakura know is aggressively honest and loud while another flirts with the girls in her class and club. Jokes come out of ridiculous situations and overreactions (and sometimes underreactions) instead of making fun of the characters themselves. The romance is often present, since Sakura continues to like Nozaki, who is also drawing a romance manga, but the show makes fun of romance clichés through Nozaki’s misunderstandings of romantic feelings.

4. Kill la Kill

If you want over the top from the people who did Gurren Lagann, look no further than Kill la Kill. While it began airing late last year, it wrapped up this year and turned out to be a surprisingly fun story. Ryuuko Matoi is after her dad’s killer and suspects Satsuki Kiryuin, the student council president, of being involved. Both Ryuuko and Satsuki fight each other using special “god robes.” When the two transform, their clothes become tighter and more revealing for no reason. The show’s take on sexuality is certainly divisive and far from perfect. The beginning of the series often sexualizes female characters to their embarrassment, and the men in Mako’s family — even their dog — will outright drool over Ryuuko.

As the show gets more dramatic, this type of humor stops. Then Ryuuko and Satsuki are portrayed as powerful women. The friendship between Ryuuko and Mako is touching, and all of Satsuki’s subordinates admire her for her determination and willpower. At the end of it, the women in this show are people, and they’re the ones impacting the narrative from the heroes to the antagonists to everything in-between. Kill la Kill has high energy with an intense soundtrack (“Don’t lose your way!”) and a bizarre story. While it fumbles sensitive topics like abuse, it’s overall a fun show with a lot of great characters.

3. Terror in Resonance

Terror in Resonance (Zankyou no Terror), as I stated in my review, is a harsh look at Japan and world politics in a post-9/11 world. While it does romanticize terrorism, it calls out politicians who are trying to militarize Japan. Terror in Resonance begins with two people stealing plutonium from a nuclear facility and goes on to explore a government-sanctioned program where children used as tools to become savants and improve Japan’s rank in the world. It also has a lot of direct 9/11 references in its imagery and show how ruthless and involved the U.S. is in foreign politics when suspected terrorism is involved. The show is both drama and a detective thriller, and while that detective thriller can drag a bit in the early middle episodes, it builds up to a conclusion where I, as someone young who is also frustrated with the lack of action from government, could empathize with young characters who feel abandoned in society.

2. Free! Eternal Summer

Free! is often seen as “the gay swimming anime” or fanservice for girls. It’s no lie that you see the boys shirtless a lot — as expected of an anime about swimmers. Whether you care about shirtless boys or not, Free! Eternal Summer portrays the successes of teamwork but also shows how pressure can make athletes fall out of love with the sport. While the first season presented drama between Haru and his old friend and rival, Rin, the second season takes the time
to develop the other characters. Haru also has his share of conflicts as everyone around him pushes him to swim competitively, stressing out this boy who just loves being in the water.

1. Ping Pong The Animation

Ping Pong might put off many with its rough art style and wacky colors, but it’s the true gem of 2014. Based on the manga Ping Pong from 1996, it tells the story of two boys’ relationship with competitive table tennis. Smile, who never smiles, learned how to play from his friend Peco, who’s always had a raw talent for the game. When Peco faces a devastating loss, he becomes spiteful of ping pong. Meanwhile, Smile continues to improve, but his serious attitude puts off his teammates.

Masaaki Yuasa (Tatami Galaxy, Kaiba) uses bright colors, rough lines, an amazing soundtrack and voice acting, plus an effective use of movement to bring out the intensity ping pong and the inner conflicts many of the characters major and minor are confronting. The beginning and ending are the strongest points in Ping Pong, but the middle fleshes out characters as Smile and Peco deal with things separate from each other. Meanwhile, other strong table tennis players crush under the weight of not being born with pure talent or having to meet the expectations of the generation before them. It all comes together for a great finale that’s more about the people than the sport. This anime is as close to perfect as you can get.

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