Aliens and linguistics? Yeah, count me in.

Arrival was my favorite movie of 2016, I think. It wasn’t necessarily the best or most important movie — I’ll save that statement for an upcoming post on Get Out, probably — but it was the one that I enjoyed watching the most. It contained the most pure movie magic.

Its timeline was reminiscent of Memento, its sentimentality rang of Up and its primary partnership (and color palette) brought to mind that first glorious season of True Detective, yet it was its own unique entity, unlike any other science fiction story I’d ever seen.

When I say that the sci-fi elements of the movie are simple, I don’t mean that they’re rudimentary or boring. Quite the opposite, actually. They were complex, elegant and well within the realm of possibility. They didn’t overwhelm with an overdose of CGI (which has its time and place!); rather, they wowed by leaving a lot to the viewer’s imagination.

Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the Army to help a team communicate with an alien pod — one of 12 across the globe — and she and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) develop an application that allows them to translate the aliens’ language into readable English. The pods are ominous, intriguing and completely mysterious; they hover above the earth with a magnetic yet passive presence. The aliens themselves are heptapods, and we don’t see much more than their snaky silhouettes. And the inkblot-type runes that form their language, and which they squirt onto the clear surface between them and Louise and Ian are like next-level Rorschach tests. I’d tattoo one on myself, they’re that beautiful.

Louise, Ian, Colonel Weber (a very unfortunately slurry Forest Whitaker) and the rest of the Army not only work together to communicate with the aliens, but they’re also in contact with the other 11 countries trying to do the same thing. It’s an obvious metaphor, but a pertinent one nevertheless — we’re all better off together. Collaboration, especially in the face of something greater and more foreign than all of us, is the only way.

Her

I think I can sum up this movie in one non-existent word, invented by comedian Marc Maron and used as the title of his most recent comedy special: thinky-pain.

Her is a very weird, quiet, emotional ride that you take with him, Theodore Twombly. Joaquin Phoenix is his own brand of chameleon, but I’d like to think that here, he’s basically himself, letting it all hang out. Her is also the very real story of something we can’t quite imagine yet, and something that writer/director Spike Jonze has thought long and agonizingly hard about.

Picture yourself talking to your computer, and it talking back. Picture yourself getting to know the computer, so well that you have deep conversations with it, reveal things about yourself, fall for it, it falls for you, you have sex, and you develop a bond as close as with any human. Now picture yourself watching this all happen and picture yourself sort of experiencing it as you’re watching it. It’s pretty transcendental. As I watched this completely bizarre, thoughtful relationship before my eyes, I felt like I was in the relationship with them, kind of like the surrogate that appears briefly in the middle of the movie. I thought about every feeling that Theodore was having, every consideration about when to talk to Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and when to hold back, when to challenge her and when to accept her, when to be businesslike with regards to emails and other things on the computer and when to talk to her about what she did that day. It was actually rather educational. How do you split your time with someone who is built to split your time for you, and who knows what’s best for you according to data you’ve provided yourself?

Theodore is a lonely man. He has very few friends, though he doesn’t seem particularly curmudgeonly. It seems that he’s just over trying, but not over living. In fact, he wants to live more, and he smiles an awful lot, but his ex-wife, played by a very Jennifer Connelly-like Rooney Mara, seems to have a grasp on his fragile heart. His smile is beautiful, but it is also pained. It’s a smile from a person who knows that the happiness is temporary. I mentioned Phoenix’s tendency to transform into each of his roles, and throughout the course of this movie, he sort of does that. While Theodore may be the most basic, sane person he’s ever played, he changes and morphs ever-so slightly. It may be due to the lighting and the angles; one minute, he’s looking hale and healthy; the next, his high-waisted sweat-slacks give him the physique of a pre-pubescent boy. It’s very confusing, but maybe it also says something about how he’s fickled, too.

Her, Samantha, is Scarlett, and it is with her that I have the biggest beef. Not because I am one of those girls who hates her because she’s pretty. I love her because she’s pretty. But her pretty face isn’t in this movie; only her voice. I think her Samantha was nuanced and crackly and completely believable–as a human. And therein lies the problem. Scarlett’s voice is unmistakably Scarlett, plus there was the whole campaign, informally informing everyone that Scarlett had replaced a lesser-known British actress for the role. I think I would have preferred not knowing who Samantha was, not until long after the movie had been out. Knowing it was a human, knowing that Scarlett has a body even though Samantha doesn’t, knowing that Scarlett had those feelings and highs and lows, just took me out of it a little. I couldn’t believe that a computer could ever have those voice modulations or whispers, or anything like that. You can’t program emotion. Or maybe you can, but it won’t sound like that.

It’s scary to think about, isn’t it? Talking to our OS’s someday, walking around waving our arms, arbitrarily having conversations with humans or machines, finding it increasingly difficult to connect with humans, isolating ourselves into a world of interactive video games and awkward dates. Her wasn’t all serious–the first half of the movie, especially, provided so many laughs. Theodore’s bizarre role-playing game, and phone sex with a stranger, left me and the rest of the audience in stitches. The computers are funny, and not because they’re inhuman. They’re more human than we’d like to believe, in this weird quasi-Los Angeles future. It’s the humans that inject the tragedy into this story. They can’t keep up with each other–Theodore’s blind date (Olivia Wilde, who should be in more things) can’t keep up with him, he can’t keep up with Samantha, Samantha can’t keep up with other OS’s, Amy (Adams, who was fine, I guess) can’t keep up with her husband–and so they retreat back into themselves. There is hope, at the end of the movie, that Theodore will rejoin the humans, for lack of a better term, but that over-hanging smoggy pall over the big city feels foreboding. It’s the cloud taking over, in more ways than one.

American Hustle

I’ve been struggling with this one a bit. I went into it thinking I’d be so amped about it — on paper, it has everything I could ever want in a movie, which is to say: Bradley Cooper, Bradley Cooper with silly hair, Louis C.K., outrageous 70s costumes, a dangerous scheme, and a dance-worthy soundtrack. At the end of the movie, though, I found myself underwhelmed.

This could be the David O. Russell effect, though. He has a way of taking very high-stakes and high-emotional situations and very quietly downplaying them. I’d venture to say that his last three pictures — this, and Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter — all had basically the same level of emotional output and tone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that there’s a very distinct, specific blanket that he puts on his films. Perhaps the lowest-stakes of these three movies, SLP, was the most emotionally raw, with the outbursts from Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. And perhaps this one, American Hustle, which I’d think would have been a bit more shoot-em-up, considering all the loan scams and money laundering going on, was the most sedated. I don’t quite get it.

I have to give my friend credit for fleshing out this theory so well. She pointed out that the characters, as interesting and crazy as their lives are, aren’t really believable outside of the exact words we hear them say on screen. And it’s true. I can’t imagine what Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) or Richie DiMaso (Cooper) or Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) or Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) would say to each other beyond the two hours and change that I had to get to know them. I might be able to have a real conversation with Louis C.K.’s character, Stoddard Thorsen, but that’s because he was basically playing himself behind a desk. (And I love him for that.)

Maybe I’m also a little dense, but I found it difficult to follow just how dangerous Rosenfeld and Prosser’s lives were, and how much they were risking. All of the proverbial cards were out there — Rosenfeld was constantly popping pills for his heart because he was so stressed, Prosser was adopting a British accent to cover her tracks — but I never felt tense about any of it. And the master of Inserting Tension Into A Scene, Robert De Niro, even made his little appearance and I barely flinched. It was as if we were supposed to take this whole situation with a grain of salt, as if it was just a love story between two people that happened to involve stealing a lot of money from other people.

That can’t be the point of this movie, though. It’s maybe 1/4 a love story, 3/4 a study about the 70s, and about how it’s impossible to know what really happened a lot of the time. Those are essentially the first words we see on screen, anyway. “Some of this happened.” I like that Russell established the lack of seriousness right away, to let us know that we shouldn’t get too invested in it because the details we invest in might be the fake ones. But once you’re in a movie, watching actors you like do things you enjoy, it’s hard not to get invested. I think it comes down to the fact that my own emotions were toyed with in a way that I didn’t quite know how to handle.

One final thing. The acting in this movie was, of course, superb. Cooper was incredible and intense, especially, and his hair was impossible to look away from. And J.Law put on quite a show, too, despite the fact that we didn’t see as much of her as we ought to. I’m still not convinced that Adams applied the British accent consistently throughout the movie, but I’ll let my ignorance get the best of me there. Christian Bale, though. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why he chose to gain weight for this movie, and this role. The Fighter is definitely his crowning achievement, one for which he dropped a shite-ton of weight. But Irving Rosenfeld just didn’t seem worth it to me. He’s interesting enough, but not so interesting that he needed to go on the Fat Mac diet and balloon himself. Bale is also a superb actor, of course, but wouldn’t it have made more sense just to hire an actor who already has the look? I wasn’t incredibly convinced by his chemistry with Amy Adams, either. I don’t know.

I need to see this movie again, probably. I’m definitely willing to. I’ll watch Bradley Cooper in tiny hair rollers forever.

The Master

What most people I encounter feel about whom I refer to as “the other Anderson”, I feel about Paul Thomas Anderson, heretofore referred to as PTA. I love PTA. I love the aesthetic of his movies, the soft darkness that haunts basically every frame, the way silence is louder than most dialogue, the way he doesn’t necessarily have a set of really obvious actor muses, the way he lingers on unsettling images, the way he can be funny and disturbing at the same time. There Will Be Blood is one of the most beautiful movies ever made, I think, even if it’s not necessarily the kind you’d want to watch again. Most of PTA’s movies are like that. The Master is the similar, in that it’s uncomfortable and twisted and beautiful, but it’s different in any other way. Joaquin is no DDL, but he’s damn close.

I was very excited about this movie for many reasons, and it met most of my expectations. Seeing it in 70 mm was one, and it was totally worth it; I realize that sounds pretentious, but it also sounds like the intelligent equivalent of, “Seeing Step Up in 3D was totally worth it,” so, suck it. There were many shots of the wake of a boat, and the blue on display in those shots was a blue I’d never seen before. It contrasted so beautifully with the dark colors everywhere else in the movie, almost joltingly so. Seeing Joaquin Phoenix make his real comeback was another, and he definitely did it. His Freddy Kwell was turbulent, in one word, sad in another, complex in a third. He wasn’t exactly enjoyable to watch, because Freddy was so fucked up, but he was magnetic nonetheless. When he wasn’t making his deadly liquor, laughing emptily, speaking in mumbles, or picturing every woman around him naked, he was hunched over. His clothes fit like hand-me downs, his body appeared gaunt, and his demeanor was sickly, if that’s even possible. He went Method, man, and didn’t look back. The result is intense, but I’d expect nothing less from Phoenix or PTA, for that matter.

On the other side of the intense spectrum, we have Philip Seymour Hoffman, the blonde Paul Giammatti. (Both are incredibly good actors who look much older than they actually are. That’s all. It’s not a bad thing.) PSH, which is now my favorite set of initials upon seeing it written out thusly, delivers a different kind of performance, one mostly restrained and mysterious, almost plastic. He lets go a few times, drinking the magic potion and getting arrested, but for the most part he’s stoic, dead-eyed, unidentifiably charismatic, and even creepy. Just the way you’d imagine the figurehead of Scientology The Cause to be. As he ropes in Freddy, the two develop this symbiotic, co-dependent relationship. It’s unclear how it started, how it ended, why it exists, and what it means.

I think this’ll be the biggest critique of the movie–its ambiguity. Granted, the ambiguity makes the story much weaker than, say, There Will Be Blood. But I think the ambiguity is a good thing. Ambiguity is a huge part of cults, of why cults are fascinating and magnetic and repulsive, depending on who you ask. I think PTA was trying to convey that. We find them creepy because we can’t figure out why people get sucked into them, and yet we watch it all unfold in front of us with Freddy and it makes complete sense. It was chance that he happened upon Lancaster Dodd and company’s boat, it was chance that he had just served in the navy, it was chance that he was a drunk, and all of these circumstances add up to vulnerable, inquisitive, perfect convert. In the end, [spoiler alert] it’s hard to say if The Cause saved Freddy. He got out, he didn’t go for the girl he wanted to go for. Had he stuck with The Cause, would he have been better for it? What’s “better” anyway? Not crazy, but brainwashed? Once you get inside the spiral, it’s hard to get out. That’s maybe the only definite conclusion to come to.

In some ways, I think this film could have been more terrifying. I wish I would have known what monetary benefits Dodd was reaping from his followers, or what benefits he got from the whole arrangement. Peggy, his wife, played by Amy Adams, insinuated that he was allowed to mess around outside of their marriage so long as she never found out about it, but we never saw this play out. She was just as devoted to The Cause as he was, which I found unexpected, and her eyes were even more dead than Hoffman’s. I was expecting a “silent birth” scene to happen at some point, since she was knocked up for most of the movie, but to no avail. And I guess I was expecting more fear, more bullying, and more noise. Not because of There Will be Blood, but because the story seems to lend itself to pent-up anger and explosion. Perhaps PTA was resisting direct comparisons to his previous movie.

In any case, someone’s got to get an Oscar for this thing. Joaquin for lead, Phil (yeah, we’re tight) for supporting, PTA for directing or writing, Jonny Greenwood for his slightly lighter but still furiously beautiful (and ironic) soundtrack, and most importantly, whoever cast Jesse Plemons as PSH’s son. Why this hasn’t happened before is beyond me. They’re twins.

Sunshine Cleaning

Not great, not bad, but interesting enough—AGAIN!—to make me think that I, too, could write a movie. So… inspirational?

Yes, and I’m not just being egotistical here. This movie was a dark comedy, but also one about believing in yourself. Amy Adams was Rose something-or-other, some really fake Movie Last Name, and she wanted to do something with her life with the skills she had. So she heard that people make bank cleaning up crime scenes and enlisted her sister to start the business with her. Her sister screws up along the way, her son needs to go to private school, she is the “other woman” in an affair, blah blah blah, her father helps them out, all works out in the end. It’s not a complex story, but at least the characters seemed normal, and not trying-too-hard-to-be-normal normal.

I think that normalcy is attributed to the actors. Amy Adams is endlessly likable, and Emily Blunt is too, even when she’s speaking with an American accent and sporting all kinds of tattoos and a studded belt. That woman has talent. Her British accent could only be heard a couple times, when she got emotional. But it happens to the best of ’em; even Dominic West couldn’t hide his UK-ness on The Wire because Jimmy McNulty got heated so much.

I digress. The depth of this movie came from the sisters’ backstory, which was that their mother committed suicide so they had to deal with these bloody scenes as part of their job, which kind of sucked. But the whole thing was so sincere, not contrived, so it was pleasant, almost enjoyable. A creative, simple story, a cast of respectable actors, and enough humor to keep things light when they need to be. Sometimes, you just want to watch a movie and enjoy it for no reason. I think you can do that with this one.

PS, Clifton Collins Jr? I saw a resemblance between him and JGL. Just saying.

The Fighter

Obviously Christian Bale needs to win the Oscar for his work in this movie. He is incredible, magnetic, and yet repulsive all at the same time. That’s astonishing, especially considering that just a few years ago, he was Batman with that stupid voice, uttering that great line, “I’m not the one wearing hockey pants.” Heh-heh.

Anyway, The Fighter is an achievement. It’s not a perfect movie—the tone oscillates from humorous to dramatic to almost satirical at times, which I didn’t like much. But this didn’t feel like an average “boxing movie” to me, like Cinderella Man, for example. No, The Fighter was unique because its title meant a million different things, even though it only seemed to refer to one person. The Fighter stood for all of the main characters, Micky Ward, Dicky Eklund, Alice, Charlene, even the foes that Micky and Dicky faced throughout their careers. Everyone was fighting for something in this movie, sometimes against each other, but because this was a story of triumph, they all put aside their differences and came together for the right reason, which was Micky’s fighting.

I found myself wishing there was more boxing in this movie, yet I found the lack of boxing quite refreshing. Boxing movies are truly a special breed. They’ve always been the most exciting and engaging type of sports movie to me, for whatever reason (besides Miracle, though), yet when I watched Wahlberg in the ring, I didn’t quite believe him as a boxer (though a “fighter” would be a different tangent altogethrer). For that reason, I thought it was good that the fight scenes were sporadic, and when they happened, they were really thrilling, and you ignored the fact that it was this movie star you’ve seen in everything getting his face screwed up a thousand ways. I looked around the theater and saw people leaning forward in their seats, enjoying the bout as if they were ringside in Las Vegas, too. Congrats, David O. Russell, you must have done something right!

Christian Bale, though. I had no idea he was such a method actor. Guy dropped a bunch of weight, applied one hell of a Lowell accent, and developed such a believable, quirky personality that he was almost unrecognizable. That’s acting, I tell you. This movie would have been unrecognizable without him.

Mark Wahlberg and his team should be proud to add this movie to Hollywood’s esteemed canon of boxing works. This one’s definitely a modern-day knockout. Sorry, folks. Had to say it.