(First off, congratulations to Dread Pirate Steven Carlson and Paul Clark for getting quoted in this year's A/V Club Film Poll, and congratulations to the three guys who won Best in Show. Wish it was one of us, but whaddya gonna do. So here's my ballot. I was genuinely surprised I got two mentions [Joshua and Superbad] -- while this year's blurbs were definitely better than last year's [save the one the made the final cut], there was a lot of... effort that went into these. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but you can see the sweat stains here. Generally, I prefer the more casual kind of blurb, akin to the Dread Pirate's killer "Sacajaweas" line from last year. But the ones I can do that with rarely, it seems, are the ones that make my Top 5. Oh well, boo fuckin' hoo.)
1. Joshua: Joshua takes the universal experiences of having a baby -- the sleepless nights, the emotional ups and downs, the constant gnawing knowledge that you've been charged with protecting the defenseless -- and flips it into a horror movie. That would normally be enough, but director Ratliff takes it further, and suggests that these same babies may grow up to hate you for no good reason. We don't know what fuels Joshua's step-by-step dismantling of his nuclear family -- many clues are offered, but they all feel like red herrings -- but I think the key is his father, played by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell lets his natural, swinging-dick persona inflect his portrayal of an upstanding family man, letting us sense the self-involved lout underneath the caring husband. Coupled with his finance-industry job, it becomes clear that Joshua's goal isn't the destruction of his baby sister, but her salvation -- from their gauche parents, the kind of people who would create someone like Joshua.
2. The Host: Raised in the shadow of Jaws, we've been led to believe -- nay, told -- that the best monster movies withhold the creature until the last third. Leave it to the audience's imagination as long as you can, right? Bong Joon-ho bravely and brazenly demolishes this notion about ten minutes into The Host. A giant mutant tadpole emerges from the Han River and munches on riverside picnickers, creating a panic, all in broad daylight. It's a bravura sequence, crisply edited and shot with a steady hand, and displays more thrills and twists in a matter of minutes than most movies can muster in two hours. That Bong follows this sequence with the story of one family's loss and subsequent triumph while maintaining the excitement of a monster movie is nothing short of masterful.
3. Superbad: We witness a kind of apocalypse in Superbad, but it's a quiet, invisible one. Seth and Evan's world is a self-contained bubble, where life is an ongoing conversation, moving from phone to car to high school with the fluidity and weightlessness of a dream, and not even soccer balls are allowed to impinge on it. While there have been accusations of misogyny, they don't belong to the film -- Seth and Evan's world ends, not because of some tantalizing siren tearing them apart, but because their dreamworld dissipates on contact with the real thing. All that's left is to step onto the escalator and go down, down, down into the deep dark waters of commitment. Welcome to adulthood, guys. Go buy something.
4. 28 Weeks Later: I had trouble breathing by the end of 28 Weeks Later. It wasn't the relentless pace or the dread that seeps into every frame, although those didn't help. No, it was the claustrophobia -- the film is all boarded-up cottages and underground military facilities, enclosed streets and subway tunnels. Even the open countryside feels like a nightmarish trap, everywhere to run but nowhere to hide. But the worst of it is in not one but two jaw-dropping sequences, where we're constrained to the sights of a rifle and forced to witness death, almost participating in it -- once from far away, and once sickeningly, perversely close. Despite a final image that feels like a studio-enforced attempt to leave it sequel-ready instead of the grim note of uncertainty that it needed, 28 Weeks Later shook me like no other film this year.
5. Once: I suppose it isn't surprising that, in this age of dogmatic fandom, some people would think that loving Once is an endorsement of MOR folk-rock. What is surprising is the notion that, since Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová's songs aren't the second coming of "Thriller" or "OK Computer", any success or goodwill their characters receive is an outrageous contrivance. (As if, say, Celine Dion never sold millions of records.) Sorry haters, but the songs aren't really the point; the point is what they mean to the characters and how they feel when they perform them. What makes the film heartbreaking is that, for all the fearless soul-baring they do in their music, they just can't seem to open up to each other. It's a movie where the words "I love you" are never spoken, and their absence is a crushing void.