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.

The Town

While watching this film, it occurred to my roommate and I that Ben Affleck is both overrated and underrated. Overrated as an actor, perhaps, but underrated in his abilities. The guy has so many fascinating facets to them, and The Town is a testament to that.

At times this movie reminded me of a non-superhero version of The Dark Knight, with its scary-masked bank heists and its two-faced anti-hero and its sweeping, deep-stringed musical score. But The Town was also a twisted love letter to a city with which Affleck is clearly in a long-term relationship. He is at his best when he’s talking about what he knows, and that is Boston. Even if he’s never robbed a bank per se, he knows how to tell a story within the confines of the Green Monster.

The Town exceeded my already high expectations. The cast was mesmerizing—between their beauty and their talent, it was hard to divert your eyes from the screen. Rebecca Hall was relatable and down-to-earth as Claire Keesey, the girl who accidentally fell for the guy who kidnapped her. Ben Affleck was that guy, Doug MacRay, and he did a terrific job of being emotionally distant from basically everything in his life; he seemed to have this deep but resentful attachment to his past and his future, which is interesting because normally Affleck’s characters are overly sincere and smiley. Maybe he isn’t such a bad actor after all!Jon Hamm kicked some unexpected ass as FBI agent Adam Frawley, and sported unconventional plaid shirts and smack talk as he attempted to take these robbers down. Jeremy Renner, a.k.a. Ben McKenzie, a.k.a. Tom Hardy (seriously, when will these three play triplets already?!) was obviously intense and wonderful as Jimmy Coughlin, and he deserved every bit of that Oscar nomination he got. Blake Lively was probably the weakest part of the whole cast, but she’s so dang pretty that it didn’t really matter.

No matter the subject matter, Ben Affleck always paints a flattering picture of the city of Boston in his movies. He added his touch as a director and writer this time around, and it’s plain to see how he is developing and maturing beyond the role of actor. The sweeping shots of the city were incredible, and they took nothing away from the city—that was the job of the corrupt characters, and the city was there to back them up and enable their good deeds and transgressions alike. I think this film deserves more nominations than it got last year, but like its other epically-scored compatriot, Inception, it got majorly snubbed at the Oscars. I do think Ben Affleck will get his time to shine as a director, but I certainly hope it happens sooner rather than later. He’s one of the most multitalented people in Hollywood.

The Hurt Locker

Well, this is what happens when you’re home sick. You watch a lot of movies. Glad I finally got around to watching this one, because I can see why it won Best Picture last year–thought I was rooting for anything to beat Avatar at that particular ceremony. But anyway. I read up on the accolades the movie received, and was particularly pleased with myself to have the same opinion as Roger Ebert, who of course said it better than I would have. He basically pointed out that the movie made everyone’s roles clear, that every character had a purpose, and that the audience was given all the correct information in order to get to know the characters. That is not to say that it was methodical and obvious and all that. It was just about a very specific group of guys in the army, so there was enough time to devote to their stories.

I feel like it’s difficult to do that with war movies. Half of them are made as blow-up blockbusters, the other half are emotional character profiles, and the Hurt Locker was definitely a rare balance between the two. There was so much tension as James approached each bomb, so much suspense as Sandborn watched from a safe distance, so much pain as the screwed-up guy freaked out every five minutes, and yet there was so much character development, too. I took a particular liking to Anthony Mackie’s Sandborn, because I’d like to think that every soldier protecting our country is as thorough and intelligent as he is. But I digress.

One thing that bothered me, though, was the criticism for this movie. It didn’t get the proper accolades, I think, because it was directed by a woman. I think it’s phenomenal that a woman like Kathryn Bigelow could tell what was essentially a man’s story so beautifully. And yet, according to some critics, much of this movie was factually inaccurate. Which also makes me sad, because she and her crew took the time to film the thing in Jordan, but couldn’t get all the ins and outs of combat correct? Bollocks. And then calling Jeremy Renner the next Russell Crowe? I mean, yes, he’s a good actor and yes he’s got that whole physical resemblance thing working for him, but I hate it when actors are compared to one another. And it always seems to be for physical reasons too. Ben McKenzie gets the same comparison, because he looks like he could be Crowe’s son. It’s unfair. Let actors rise in their own rights.

I digress again. This is a beautiful war movie, and yet it hits deeper than war. It makes you respect the endless, unimaginable efforts that our troops are making, and it makes you wish they were home right now.