This was a rough decision. Not just because I had to watch three movies in three days (it was actually two days, if I'm being honest - I was busy on Thursday), but more because these three films are such completely and utterly different movie-going experiences. They each represent totally different approaches to telling a story that matters, a different view of what it means for a film to be "the best".
So, before I tell you which one I ended up choosing, let me explain why each of these films could be considered "the best."
First off, Top Five. Out of all the films in this three-way tie, Top Five is the one I was most surprised didn't get nominated for any major awards at like the Oscars or the Golden Globes. It seems like such a slam dunk of an awards show movie. It is, after all, the thinly veiled story of Chris Rock. Or, as he's called in the movie, "Andre Allen", a comedian who's done being funny and wants to be taken seriously as an actor and artist now.
The movie takes place over the course of a single day, a day that Allen spends being tailed by Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a New York Times reporter doing a profile on him. Allen is wary at first because he's been burned by the New York Times in the past, but slowly warms to Brown, and the two enjoy a very witty repartee as they wander through New York and talk about life, rap, and everything.
It's also worth noting that this day in question happens to be the day that Allen's passion project film comes out (a movie about the Haitian Revolution that it seems no one wants to see) and also only a few days before his wedding Erica (Gabrielle Union), his reality show star fiancee. In the midst of all the chaos, the movie finds time to meditate on what it means to be funny, famous, sober, and a genuinely good person, and it never loses its stride or gives up genuine feeling for the laughs.
It's a very good movie, and frankly one that I am shocked didn't get more critical love and attention. I mean, seriously, there's nothing Hollywood loves more than a movie about the industry, right? Then again, they also deeply hate movies that criticize the industry, and since a huge part of this film is Allen blatantly pointing out how racist Hollywood is, maybe it's not hard to see why it was snubbed.
Still, it's a great film and definitely worth your time. Funny, charming, and full of feeling, it is completely understandable why this one made it to the final round.
Okay. Now on to Snowpiercer. Like I said before, this one is sort of a cheat for me. I love this movie. I own it on DVD. I've written about it before too. It's a film that has had a genuine and profound impact on me and that kicks me in the pants every time I see it. I was deeply tempted to just give the award to this movie because I like it so much, but then I decided that wouldn't be in the spirit of the thing.
Aside from my general sentiment, though, there are good reasons for Snowpiercer to be at the top. I mean, it's the sort of movie that makes people uncomfortable, and I really mean that as a compliment. While critics are generally in favor of it, there was never any chance of this film being honored by a major awards show, because it's a searing indictment of the class system and inequality. Since Hollywood is very much an entrenchment of that same class system and reinforces it in most films, it didn't seem likely that they'd applaud this film. And they didn't.
Snowpiercer takes place entirely on a train, set in the not particularly distant future. Humanity has frozen itself to death in trying to fix global warming, and now the only survivors on the planet live inside a single train, endlessly circling the globe as it waits for temperatures to rise and the new ice age to end. The train itself comprises a microcosm of society, with the upper classes living in luxury and endless wealth at the front of the train, warmed by the engine, and the lower classes crammed into the freezing tail of the train where there are no windows and they have to eat protein blocks to stay alive. Our heroes are obviously from the tail.
The movie starts when the people in the tail decide to revolt against their "masters". Led by Gilliam (John Hurt) and Curtis (Chris Evans), they band together to fight through the whole train, trying to get to the Engine. Because, as they point out several times, whoever controls the Engine controls the world.
What makes this more than just a good action movie about underdogs rising up against the "bad guys" of an oppressive system, though, is that the film never lets you feel good about the violence. Ever. I mean, honestly, it never lets you feel good about anything. So when Curtis and his crew slaughter a group of mercenaries, you can't feel good for them. There's no swelling music or moment of triumph. It's bloody and ugly and there are unacceptable losses on both sides, and it's all horrible. The whole movie is like that, and it is brilliant and brutal to watch.
Which I suppose makes it hard to see why I like this film so much, but I guess I should say that in addition to being brutal, it's true, and that's the key of it. A movie that was just bleak and horrible wouldn't be in the top five or the top three, but Snowpiercer is elegant and pointed truth. It's about how we all need to really really examine the narrative we are spinning about ourselves, that we cannot dehumanize the enemy, and that we must truly understand the human cost of our lives. It's a good freaking movie.
Finally, rounding out the top three, there's Under the Skin, a movie that pretty much embodies the word "opaque". Where Top Five is verbose and funny and full of color and Snowpiercer is densely packed with symbolism and detail and hard-hitting criticisms of the class system, Under the Skin sort of just is. It's like poetry in movie form, minimalist, virtually impossible to describe, and very intentionally obtuse.
I was surprised by how much I liked it.
Insofar as there even is a plot, it goes like this: The Female (Scarlett Johansson) is some kind of alien in human form who lures unattached, unmissable men into her van. Then she takes them back to a warehouse where she drowns them in a pool of black liquid. For some reason. And there's a man with her who seems to be in control of her, but that isn't really clear either. Did I mention that there's virtually no dialogue? Because there isn't. It's almost entirely visuals and music, and it's brilliant.
I mean, I can tell you what happens in the film, which is mostly that, following an encounter with a man she doesn't actually want to kill (Adam Pearson), the Female goes off script and ends up wandering the Scottish countryside, becoming more and more human and vulnerable until Bad Things Happen. But that's not what happens. That's not what the movie is about.
As far as I can tell, which is not much, mind you, the movie is about being human. And, I would argue, it's very specifically about being a woman. What it means to be a woman, what it means to be subject to the male gaze, what it means to be vulnerable and invincible at the same time. You could say it's a film about growing up. You could also say it's a movie about rape and sexual assault. You could probably make a compelling argument that this movie is about anything you want, because that's the thing: Under the Skin never tells you what it is about. Not once. It just shows you some things and lets you decide.
Which, for the record, isn't something I thought I would like. I generally enjoy my films to be clear and honest about their intentions. I'm not a "mood" person, I like plot and story structure and character arcs. This film had only one of those things, but what it did have was truth. I'm still not sure what it was about, but I know that it was true, whatever it was. And yes it's insane and tense and stressful and very very bizarre, but it's spectacular at being all of those things, and it definitely deserves to be in the top three as well.
So, with all of that in mind, what did I choose?
I chose Under the Skin. I know, it surprised me too. But there's something to be said for a movie that feels no need to explain itself. Under the Skin, way more than the other two, is subtle. It's slow and feeling and weird and quiet and it just makes you sit and watch until you understand, rather than tell you what it wants you to know. And I just...it's an amazing movie. From all accounts of how a movie can be good, this one hits them.
Like, there's no exposition in this movie. None at all. You are never told what is going on, but that's okay, because you figure it out. Mostly. I mean, you don't understand wide swathes of it, but it doesn't matter because anything you don't understand isn't essential to the movie. Who is The Female and what the hell is she doing? No idea. But that doesn't actually matter in the narrative, and I really appreciate the confidence it takes to just not even bother trying to explain. It takes guts.
And then there's the phenomenal acting of Scarlett Johansson, the absolutely beautiful cinematography, and the riveting music...it all comes together into something that feels less like a movie and more like art. Which I can appreciate. I get that it's a total movie buff's film, and that's okay with me. This movie is amazing, and I can comfortably say that it's the best. It tells the best story in the best way, and that's how I'm judging it.
Oh man guys. This completes our ballot for the Best Overall Underappreciated Film of 2014!
Like I said before, if you can, please vote in our final category, where the winners from the last round go head to head to see which film ends up on top! The nominees are Mockingjay, Under the Skin, Obvious Child, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, and Song of the Sea. Happy watching!*
*Just a reminder that you must have seen all the nominated films to vote.