10. Arrival. Denis Villeneuve. USA.
Let’s start this 2016 Top 10 list off by getting a little personal. Just as time plays such a critical role in Denis Villeneuve’s contemplative science-fiction drama Arrival, the timing of its release in the United States proved crucial to my appreciation of the film itself. Serving as both the first film I watched and the first social outing I attempted following the devastating U.S. election—which quite honestly left me feeling like a shell of a person with the inability to speak or even formulate coherent thoughts—Arrival unexpectedly provided the perfect antidote to those consuming feelings of defeat and hopelessness.
On its surface, the world depicted in Arrival certainly mirrors our own: a planet at odds with itself, governed by self-appointed stature and fear, where outsiders are perceived as a threat. On a single fateful day, twelve oval-shaped spacecrafts mysteriously land across the earth, and in the United States, the military enlists the help of a linguistics professor, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), to communicate with the aliens to determine the purpose of their visit. Within the film itself, the majority of the action is contained within a foggy, green pasture in Montana, and I use the term “action” lightly as Arrival stands as the rare example of the expensive Hollywood genre film that consciously avoids the sort of full-throttle action sequences you’d come to expect from some of 2016’s lesser sci-fi yarns, like Passengers or the Independence Day sequel no one asked for.
With the outside world on the verge of panic and chaos, as seen through news footage and video communications with the other nations where the spaceships have landed, the Montana pasture and the spacecraft hovering above it transform into a strange place of tranquility and reflection, no matter how much an extra hammy Forest Whitaker tries to disrupt that. In turn, Louise’s slow journey to find a common, visual language with our guests from outer space became the all-too-real metaphor for my own life during these trying times, as I struggled to interpret my own emotions and achieve a certain harmony within myself… all while the world outside sits on the verge of collapse.
Villeneuve, a marvelous technical director whose involvement in the upcoming Blade Runner sequel actually makes it something to look forward to, allows things to unfold slowly and quietly in Arrival. The film itself embodies a certain gentleness and hopefulness I don’t think I’ve seen in any of Villeneuve’s previous films (many of which could accurately be described as bleak). With astounding cinematography by Bradford Young (Selma, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) and a haunting score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (whose score for Villeneuve’s Sicario ranks among the best I’ve heard in years), Arrival slowly drifts into a lovely Xanax-laced dream for our divided, chaotic world that I—and likely many of you as well—so desperately needed.
Arrival premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival and was released shortly afterward in the U.S., U.K., and in France (under the name Premier contact) and should be available on video and streaming sometime in early 2017.
With: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma