Top 10 Films of 2016, No. 3 – Arrival

Arrival is a science-fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve, with a screenplay by Eric Heisserer, which is adapted from Ted Chiang’s award-winning short story and novella “Story of Your Life.” The film follows a team that is put together to investigate when multiple mysterious spacecraft touch down across the globe. As the world scrambles for answers, mankind comes ever closer to global war. In order to find those answers, language expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams), physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) take a chance that could threaten their lives, and, quite possibly, humanity.

arrival6Back in August, I ranked Arrival as the No. 1 film I was anticipating for the fall film season, and that hype was well worth it—Arrival is one of my favorite science-fiction movies of all time. The reason I was looking forward to the film so much a few months ago was the director, Denis Villeneuve. After making a series of critically acclaimed foreign language films (such as Maelström and Incendies), Villeneuve broke into mainstream Hollywood with Prisoners, an emotionally disturbing and suspenseful film starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. I was a big fan of Prisoners, but Villeneuve impressed me even more in 2015 with Sicario, a gripping thriller about the viciousness of drug cartels starring Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro. However, in Arrival, Villeneuve is at his very best.

arrival5Aside from exhilarating visuals and riveting drama, Arrival succeeds because Villeneuve and screenwriter Heisserer have mastered the art of science fiction.  If Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan were to birth a cinematic love child, Arrival would be that progeny. The film taps into the best parts of the legendary Scott’s Alien, Blade Runner, and The Martian, while also channeling Nolan’s renowned mind-fuck films like Memento, Inception, and Interstellar. arrival3Needless to say, Arrival is an epic adventure about space and time, life, communication, and love, and it finds itself in my Top 3 films of the year because it just may be the single best out-and-out sci-fi film of the past decade! If you are skeptical of science-fiction movies (like me) and need a film to help restore your faith in the genre, Arrival is absolutely a must-watch.

In supporting roles, former Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner and former Oscar winner Forest Whitaker are serviceable—the two illustrious stars always bring an immense amount of talent to their projects, and nothing changes in Arrival. arrival1The leading performance by Amy Adams, though, is noteworthy and exquisite—in fact, I think the single biggest Oscar snub this year was Adams missing out on a Best Actress nod. The 42-year-old star is one of my favorite actresses in film, and she is at her finest in Arrival. As the linguist Dr. Louise Banks, Adams portrays her character as quiet, but confident, and above all, indomitable. Adams’s performance is both emotionally moving and dignified, and it is a shame the Academy chose not to recognize her brilliant abilities this year. Arrival is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

Arrival trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFMo3UJ4B4g&t=2s

Academy Award nominations for Arrival:

Best Picture (Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, and David Linde)

Best Director (Denis Villeneuve)

Best Adapted Screenplay (Eric Heisserer)

Best Sound Editing (Sylvain Bellemare)

Best Sound Mixing (Bernard Gariépy Strobl and Claude La Haye)

Best Production Design (Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte)

Best Cinematography (Bradford Young)

Best Film Editing (Joe Walker)

Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:

  1. Moonlight
  2. Lion
  3. O.J.: Made in America
  4. La La Land
  5. Fences
  6. Zootopia
  7. Nocturnal Animals
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Top 15 Films of 2015, No. 5 – Ex Machina

Ex Machina is a science-fiction thriller written and directed by Alex Garland. The film tells the story of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer coder for a powerful technology giant, who wins a competition to spend a week at the private compound of his company’s CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Once the two make acquaintances, Nathan tells Caleb that he was chosen to spend the week with him to witness one of the greatest scientific events in the history of man—Nathan’s creation of “Ava,” an A.I. (artificial intelligence). Caleb must perform a “Turing Test” on the A.I. to determine if Ava has the ability to exhibit intelligent behavior that is equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. As it becomes evident that Ava possesses incredible intelligence, the lines quickly become blurred between human and machine, and Nathan’s creation proves to be far more sophisticated than anyone could have ever imagined.

Ex7This movie is not your run-of-the-mill sci-fi. This movie is an experience unlike many others I’ve ever had—it’s a psychological thriller that is more of a character study than anything else. I have enjoyed a range of other “artificial intelligence” films in the past, such as Steven Spielberg’s A.I. (2001) and I, Robot (2004), but those movies never quite accomplished what Ex Machina has—in my opinion, the depth and genius of Ex Machina starts with writer/director Alex Garland. Garland cemented himself in the industry with his striking screenplay for the horror film 28 Days Later (2002), and in that script, he created one of the finest films in the horror genre; however, his story never became too “tropey,” meaning it never seemed cliché. In Ex Machina, he has done the same thing—only better! The plot of the film leaves the door wide open for a filmmaker to shell out the same boring motifs that already saturate this genre. Thankfully, Garland avoided this temptation and delivered a film that this genre should look to as the modern standard.

Ex3I do not want to sugarcoat anything—the film definitely gets incredibly philosophical, pondering what really makes us human. It is a lofty idea to conceptualize, but Garland does so in stunning fashion. His visuals are remarkable (Ava was part live-action and part-CGI), and his characters are even more spectacular. For starters, Ava’s entire existence and ability to learn how to interact like a human sets the tone for the twists, turns, and overall message of Garland’s film. She constantly poses thought-provoking questions to Caleb during his “Turing Test” research. Little by little, these questions create struggles for Caleb that manifest in him questioning his true role in Nathan’s experiment—he especially wonders about his very own existence. Ex5Speaking of Nathan, he is the most captivating character for me. He is a billionaire tech-genius with seemingly enough resources to live a lavish life. But the lavishness is not what one would imagine—he lives in a beautiful home (which doubles as a research facility), but he is completely secluded from the real world. In this home he is imprisoned, both mentally and physically, and he appears to be nothing more than a reclusive savant/madman. He claims to create Ava for purely scientific purposes, but it is apparent that his motivations are to create the perfect woman—this is his downfall.

Ex6Aside from Garland’s filmmaking vision, Ex Machina impresses from an acting standpoint. I am a huge fan of Domhnall Gleeson—he is incredibly charismatic in every role he takes on, but in Ex Machina, he ends up being more of a placeholder than anything else. It is worth noting that although Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac outperform Gleeson, this is not due to the latter’s own acting abilities, but instead the fact that Garland left the real story arcs to Ava and Nathan. Vikander nails her portrayal of Ava with grace, yet mystery. Playing a robot-like character is a tall task for any actor, but Vikander succeeds by delivering a perfect character equilibrium—Ava is not too robotic, but not too human, either. Vikander broke out as an actress in 2015, but despite the Oscar nomination for The Danish Girl, this, in my opinion, was her best performance from the past year. As alluded to earlier, I was exceptionally fascinated by Oscar Isaac’s performance as Nathan. He makes hilariously dry jokes and drinks copious amounts of alcohol—Isaac thrives off his character’s apparent charm. But at the same time, Nathan is demented and scary. This two-faced personality profile makes Nathan a character that cannot be trusted, even by the viewer—you never know if Nathan is showing his true colors. Ex4Oscar Isaac also helmed my favorite scene from the film. At a critical point in the movie where Caleb’s trust in Nathan is rapidly waning, Nathan’s assistant (Sonoya Mizuno) starts to dance on Nathan’s command. Nathan tells Caleb to dance with her, but Caleb has no interest—he wants to speak one-on-one with Nathan and question him about Ava. While asking Nathan what he was doing with Ava, Caleb says, “You tore up her picture.” Without missing a beat, Nathan pompously boasts, “I’m gonna tear up the fucking dance floor, dude, check it out.” Not taking Caleb seriously, Nathan and his assistant then proceed to engage in one of the greatest dance scenes in film history—far and away my favorite moment! Ex Machina is rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references, and some violence.

Ex Machina trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYGzRB4Pnq8

Academy Award nominations for Ex Machina:

Best Original Screenplay (Alex Garland)

Best Visual Effects (Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Ardington and Sara Bennett)

Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:

  1. Spotlight
  2. Straight Outta Compton
  3. Kingsman: The Secret Service
  4. Steve Jobs
  5. Creed
  6. ’71
  7. Room
  8. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  9. Beasts of No Nation
  10. The Martian