Language is universal, but also deeply personal. It’s a puzzle in which one wrong piece can offset everything around it. Language is at the core of everything we are and do, and language is tricky.
Arrival is a story of language told on two levels. You have a global threat following first contact with alien life forms. Twelve pods land in different locations around the world. Tensions arise when nations have different interpretations about the aliens’ intentions, and therefore have conflicted views about how to handle them. After an attempt to communicate with the aliens, Chinese linguistic experts decipher a threatening response from them and prepare for an attack. Meanwhile, the American interpreter, Louise (Amy Adams), sees a more ambiguous message. It’s one that may either be hopeful or damning, but Louise is not willing to jump to conclusions without finding more pieces to the puzzle.
The global threat is interesting to see unfold, but it’s through the personal plight of Louise that the movie truly shines. The film is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s book “The Story of Your Life”, which is a title that speaks to its core intentions. Despite the crisis and chaos that unfolds around her, the movie takes time to quietly explore Louise and the tragedy in her life. It’s filled with sentimental moments that intertwine with the large-scale sci-fi suspense. It’s a difficult combination to pull off, but it works beautifully. As you reach the movie’s grand twist, the narrative comes together in a way that simultaneously satisfies the science fiction plot and brings together Louise’s arc in a very clever fashion. The twist itself is an example of the way language can drive our perception. It hides in plain sight, taking advantage of our expectations about how a story should unfold.
This movie will give you a lot to think about, and that’s the sign of good science fiction.
Performance to watch: Amy Adams
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis.
I’m just going to leave their names up there.
The poster for this film has its two stars listed prominently at the top, in font nearly as large as the title itself. This is a very good movie that is elevated to greatness because of Washington and Davis. Adapted from the Broadway show of the same name, Fences introduces you to the world of Troy (Washington). He is a former Negro League baseball player, and now a working class father and husband living in 1950’s Pittsburgh. The movie takes place almost entirely at the home of Troy and his family, which makes sense given the original medium. It is through nonstop dialogue that we begin to learn about Troy’s past, and how he ended up with the life he has today.
Troy is a complex character. He’s hardworking and immediately charming. He’s often selfish, spiteful, and hypocritical. He’s also someone who pretty much never stops talking. Luckily, this is more than fine because Washington’s performance is utterly compelling to watch. He’s considered to be in a close competition with Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) for the award of Best Actor at the Oscars. Whereas Affleck looked internally to portray his traumatized, grief-stricken character, Washington wears Troy’s heart on his sleeve. He steps up to the plate and points his bat directly at the outfield fence. He does not miss.
Davis plays the role of Troy’s wife, Rose. For as outspoken and attention-grabbing as Washington is in this film, Davis puts on an equally powerful yet highly nuanced performance. Rose is dealt a number of very difficult hands throughout the film, and Davis captures the raw emotion of her struggle. Whether she’s matching the intensify of Washington in the film’s most dramatic scenes, or quietly considering the next step in her life during times of crisis, Davis shows incredible range.
Very little is satisfying about the film’s narrative. This is a reflection of real life, as it attempts to paint a realistic portrait of a troubled working class man. Troy is a person who makes mistakes seen too often, and the film acknowledges the root of those mistakes, as well as the consequences they have on those around him. It’s a solid script, and one that allows its co-stars to take over and shine. This movie should not be missed, simply because the performances are too good.
Performances to watch: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis
So who should win best picture?
There are four films I’d be happy to see take the prize. La La Land is deserving for its magical modernization of a long lost genre. Moonlight is arguably the best written screenplay, as it stuns with its subtlety and beautiful direction. Manchester by the Sea has Casey Affleck giving the performance of a lifetime, as he captivates with a quiet portrayal of tremendous grief. Arrival uses the sci-fi genre as a foundation to tell a remarkably human tale that explores the intricacies of language and communication.
I’m the type of person who will usually prefer bleak, tragic storytelling instead of an uplifting and optimistic tale. Following this logic, Manchester should be my pick. But there is something so wondrous about La La Land and its sweeping devotion to showbiz, love, and the importance of chasing one’s dreams. It left the largest impression on me. So I say La La Land is the year’s best picture.