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‘Arrival’ Is the Best Technical Film of the Year

‘La La Land’ might sweep the down-ticket categories — but Denis Villeneuve’s alien meditation is the year’s real achievement

(Paramount/Ringer illustration)
(Paramount/Ringer illustration)

As we approach the Academy Awards ceremony on February 26, conventional wisdom and conversation will most likely focus on Oscar favorites like La La Land and … La La Land. So in our recurring column Make the Case, The Ringer will focus on the less-heralded — but possibly more deserving — Oscar nominees. The upsets start here.

Nowadays, there’s usually one: a Gravity, an Avatar, a Life of Pi. An effects feast that seems poised to butt heads, at the Oscars, with a movie like Argo or Spotlight, that sophisticated, actorly drama with accomplished Editing and Cinematography, say, but likely no showy Visual Effects. The Best Picture race has lately felt like a clear choice between two kinds of movies: the technically accomplished, Hollywood-made spectacle, and the sturdy, topical, independent feature.

This would seem like an old phenomenon. Oscar winners have long bounced back and forth between your huge spectacles (Titanic, Ben-Hur, The Sound of Music, Gone With the Wind, Braveheart, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and your more writerly, actorly small-to-mid-budget dramas (from Ordinary People, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Annie Hall to films the size of The Godfather and A Beautiful Mind). But since only 2009, when the Academy expanded the Best Picture field to 10 possible nominees, has it felt like these two types of films have represented separate camps in the Academy. Perhaps it’s better to put it in Oscar terms. There are movies that appeal to the acting branches (Spotlight) and movies that appeal to everyone on the technical side, the cinematographers, editors, sound and set designers, costumers, makeup artists, and visual-effects wizards who, like the actors, get to nominate only in their own category and for Best Picture.

It’s an imperfect science. The Hurt Locker, budgeted at $15 million, feels like the “small indie” of its year only on paper, when you can see how much smaller it is than a megablockbuster like its competitor Avatar. And as a war movie, The Hurt Locker also had a great deal of craft category appeal, with wins in Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing, and a further nomination in Cinematography. (It won six Oscars total, including for Director and Original Screenplay.) Still, there’s a tangible competitive trend in that, at least so far as the Academy is concerned, the Oscar race comes down to the “best” dramatic powerhouse of the year squaring off with the most impressive movie of the year, with the Hollywood spectacle often losing to the smaller drama. Gravity, Avatar, and Life of Pi lost to 12 Years a Slave, The Hurt Locker, and Argo, respectively. Meanwhile, last year’s technical favorites — Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant, two of only five movies in Oscar history to be nominated for every single technical award — lost to Spotlight, a movie with six nominations, including only one in a technical category (Editing).

This year, the actorly indie powerhouse is La La Land. The technical powerhouse is … also La La Land. Damien Chazelle’s romantic L.A. musical is only two nominations short of sweeping every possible technical category (it lost out on Makeup and Hairstyling and Visual Effects nods). It happens also to be in the position to pull off the kind of sweep we associate with dramas like The Silence of the Lambs: Best Picture, Director, Actress, and Actor. (Actor, for Ryan Gosling, is unlikely, but, with a Golden Globe in his favor, not impossible.) That makes it a rarity. And it knocks Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a presumptive “technical” nominee by typical standards. Arrival has one fewer technical nomination than La La Land, in fact, securing nods in Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing.

It’s strange to think that Arrival will be overshadowed by a movie that’s trying not to show off. La La Land is a pretty humble affair, with singing leads who can’t sing, low-key costuming, and, generally, an attitude that’s more enthusiast than perfectionist. It’s a weird turn of events — not least because, though La La Land will be feted like a technical accomplishment, it doesn’t wear that distinction comfortably. Arrival does.

Arrival appeals to us through its overwhelming vision. I like the look and sound of the movie more than movie itself, which is normal for a movie like this: the attention to detail, the sense of technique, matters as much as the story — and often more. Somehow, the deep, guttural groan of the heptapods’ speech and the constant throb in the sound design whenever we approach their ship tell me just as much about this mysterious alien force as any info-dumping voice-over interlude. The sound design, rumbling in your seat, gives you a sense of something alive. It’s wonderful work.

If Arrival were to steal the trophy in any category, I believe it should be for Production Design. Arrival is simply not a movie I can think of, in any way, without my mind dwelling on its incredibly detailed, textured spaces. Thanks to Villeneuve’s production designer, Patrice Vermette, and his set decorator, Paul Hotte, I can’t think of Amy Adams’s face in the movie without also imagining the bright light emitted in the heptapods’ lair. And once my mind goes there, I’m thinking about the texture of the walls in that lair, and how, the first time I saw the movie, I immediately thought of hardened cake frosting — but, like, alien. I think about the precision of her home and professional lives, too: her sparsely designed but still warm home, the constant dusk of her lecture hall and office.

Arrival feels strangely compartmentalized, full of visual harmonies — like the huge windows on the world in Louise Banks’s home and in the heptapods’ lair — that are as much feats of production design as they are of the camera’s gaze. It’s thanks to Bradford Young, Villeneuve’s talented cinematographer, that I have a keen memory of those set details and that they become a part of my psychological experience of the movie. I think of Arrival in terms of color: the milky grays of the clouds rolling over the Montana plain; the bright blue of computer screens bouncing off the gray tents on the makeshift army compound; the bright juts of orange against the gray whenever someone wearing a protective radiation suit walks outside. And I think of the chalky white of the heptapods’ world most of all, and the brightly astonished expressions Jeremy Renner and Amy Adams always wear looking into it. It has an extraordinary sense of scale and specificity in its design that, for its charms, La La Land does not have. I believe Arrival to be the better movie, overall, but more importantly, I believe it to be the bigger technical feat.