Ti West is the writer-director of the horror films The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, The Sacrament and the upcoming Western In a Valley of Violence. He prefers film over digital.
Top Five is a tricky film to write about. My guess is every review is pretty much the same, calling it funny and likable but also digressing on how it explores serious themes related to Chris Rock’s own personal life. I wouldn’t be surprised if most critics also equate it to being Chris Rock’s Birdman — or that the two would make a great double feature, or at least some kind of similar sentiment. I’m only making these assumptions because all of those descriptions are indeed accurate.
The reason I find it tricky to write about, of course, now seems contradictive. It is a good film, with clear themes, so it should be really easy to review. I’m struggling, however, because the film seems to demand more of a “reaction” than a review. Thematically, Top Five deals with the struggle of being an artist, and not wanting to be reduced to recreating something you once had success with. It is about challenging yourself to try new things, to grow and to explore your own creativity, despite what other people think. Because that particular theme has really lingered with me after watching the film, I won’t mention anything about the film’s plot, or the infinite number of hysterical moments during its running time. For those, you can just read another review, or maybe skip all the reviews entirely and just go see the movie.
I feel compelled now to challenge myself to write more specifically about what the movie is about to me, rather than what happens in the movie. It’s harder to do this — much harder, in fact. It requires a deeper intellectual commitment, and the risk of sounding stupid increases exponentially. But that’s OK. That’s what creativity is all about. Whether it’s fine art, filmmaking or creative non-fiction, it’s all a form of expressing yourself. It’s what we have to offer the world. With that comes equal potential for success or failure. That’s what makes it exciting, and interesting and unique. Experiencing something through the lens of another human being gives one a powerful connection. Top Five is a prime example of this. You are being treated to this story through the filter of one of American’s greatest comedic minds. That is what makes the experience so great. It’s not just that Chris Rock is supremely talented, but that he has his own “Chris Rock-ness,” for lack of a better description, that only exists in the world because he is alive and here to share it with us.
There are plenty of funny movies, but what makes this one special is that it feels like only Chris Rock could have made it. The choices are not interchangeable. The humor and the characters surrounding him in the film are so specifically related to his taste and point of view that the combination of it all together feels particularly memorable. These choices define him as an artist, a comedian, a storyteller, a social commentator and, in many ways, a promoter of taste. What you take away from the film is what Chris Rock wants you to, not what committees of people think you should. That is directing. That is what identifies authorship — even if the supporting cast are getting laughs on their own ideas, it is the bringing together of that cast that Chris Rock is responsible for. He is not creating a universe for Top Five, but he is letting you inside his preexisting universe so that you can see how personal it is, and hopefully relate in some way. This is what being an artist is all about. He allows us to see a portion of the world through his eyes, and we can take and learn from it what we will.
As a filmmaker myself I have a complicated relationship with critics, and writing about movies like this reminds me of it. It is not personal, but it is passionate. My feeling is that the best film reviews are not about what happens in the movie but what the movie is about, and a great critic is able to extrapolate themes and articulate them in a way that potentially influences the way others see the work. That is a particular talent. However, as a filmmaker who still reads reviews, I notice a trend of film criticism simply being a regurgitation of the plot with a short paragraph at the end about whether it “works” or doesn’t, or whether that reviewer liked it or not. This feels incomplete to me. In Top Five, Chris Rock’s character is reluctant to return to stand-up comedy (which made his character famous) because of fear and vulnerability, and I can’t help but think similar thinking has crept into modern film criticism. It’s safer and easier to do what is acceptable nowadays, rather than what is great. Every creative person knows that feeling.
But then again, just as Rock’s character says in the film, “Sometimes a movie is just a movie,” maybe sometimes a movie review is just a review. My favorite scene in Top Five takes place in prison (and features an incredible cameo). There is a conversation about being an artist and not being reduced to just one facet of your personality. This scene hilariously documents one artist’s failed attempt at expanding on what he is most known for. But this is the best and funniest scene in the movie because the creative exploration that results in disaster comes from the exact same place that previously resulted in success. It’s not surprising that a stand-up comedian created this scene. Sometimes a joke is funny, and sometimes it’s not…. But funny and not-funny jokes are birthed from the same place, and the only way to know what works is to try it. So even if it doesn’t always connect, you can’t be afraid to push yourself and follow your creative inspiration. That is what Chris Rock has done with Top Five. He abandoned the overall silliness of his previous films, and took a chance on making the funniest drama of the year. It worked.