1. Under the Skin
Under the Skin is the kind of cinematic experience that you get once a year, if lucky. Hell, if you get it once every few, it means that for all the histrionic discussion of how the end of cinema is indeed nigh, we might be okay after all. It’s a brazen piece of filmmaking, transcendent in intention and execution alike, a grand statement on what it is to be human, and specifically female, in a year where the politics of the autonomous body were more aggressively contested from all sides than ever before. But let’s dial back the grad school diatribe just a little bit: Under the Skin is a great film. It’s utterly terrifying, endlessly poignant, and thought-provoking in a way fewer films are with each passing year. For our money, it’s the best film of 2014.
Despite some claims that the film is anti-narrative, we’ll argue that this is hardly the case. It’s just storytelling stripped to its barest essentials, utilizing texture and allusion to construct the world around Scarlett Johannson’s unknown woman. In a career-best performance, Johannsson offers her star persona to director Jonathan Glazer (in his first film in nine years, even though this one was supposed to have come out long before this past spring) for the sake of indicting the ways in which we view others, especially women, less as human beings and more as vessels for our own projections.
That’s how the men of a never-bleaker Edinburgh treat her, at least at first. Johannsson’s unnamed drifter wanders the streets in an unmarked white van, prowling the streets and shopping malls by day for lonely men, men easily seduced enough by a woman who looks like Scarlett Johannsson that they’ll follow her anywhere, especially if it’s to her house. But her house isn’t so much a house as a contained nightmare, a place where unimaginable and largely unexplained things happen to those who enter. This is her role in the world, and she plays it far too well. One day, though, she starts to change. She starts to consider, even briefly, whether what she’s doing might be wrong. And that’s where the trouble really starts.
Under the Skin is a deeply sorrowful film, but also one beguiled by the idea that there is good in the world. This, however, is briskly cut off by the larger concept that there are few weaknesses in the world more potentially hazardous to a human being than empathy. It’s bleak stuff, in the grandest possible sense, but it’s also reflective of a modern world in which people have increasingly begun to demand their humanity, no matter what spectral figures may try to withhold it and no matter the consequences. Under the Skin is about that tension and that struggle. As Johannsson strays from the ascribed rhythm of her day-to-day life, lighting out for the Scottish highlands in pursuit of something she desperately craves but can’t seem to name or fully understand, there are others out there with a vested interest in forcing her to know her place. But she, ultimately, evolves beyond this, beyond anything knowable to humankind. She demands dignity, and the film’s cruelest revelations come with the realization of what it truly costs to claim that. –Dominick Mayer