Guillermo Del Toro is a master of the modern fairy tale. In The Shape of Water, he tells the story of a budding love between a mute woman named Elisa and a captive fish creature. Like the very best of Del Toro, the film blurs the line between reality and fantasy and succeeds as an allegorical tale about the transformative power of love. Set in the Cold War Era, most of the story takes place in a secret government facility replete with scientists, gung-ho military jerk-offs, and spies. This setting provides the canvass for Del Toro’s peculiar aesthetic, as well as the majority of the tension. The performances are outstanding, from the supporting characters to the leads to the man in the Fish Monster suit. Simply put, The Shape of Water is a gorgeous little tale and the reason why movies can be so magical.
The name “Bobby Fischer” is synonymous with high-level chess, even decades after the Brooklyn-born grandmaster won his World Chess Championship match against the reigning champion from the Soviet Union, Boris Spasskey. Staged during the height of the Cold War, the match was seen by both sides as an opportunity to prove intellectual superiority. Pawn Sacrifice dramatizes this iconic battle-of-wits, but also delves into the psychological effects of obsession, dedication, and the heavy burden of worldwide expectation– even on the strongest of minds.
John Madden’s political thriller Miss Sloane is a contrived sledgehammer of a film. It navigates a complex subject matter from the top of a soapbox, spouting ersatz-Sorkin dialogue at the top of its lungs. Its near-infallible central character is always the smartest person in the room, except when she’s saved by the latest in a long line of plot conveniences. And though the film is stocked with talented actors, they often struggle to elevate the mediocre writing above the superficiality of a PolySci 101 term paper on the second amendment. Miss Sloane delights in its own cleverness and “message”, but seems to have considered making a film a secondary concern.
In Denis Villeneuve’s high-concept science fiction film Arrival, the expert director deftly explores a profoundly different view of reality – all in the guise of an alien invasion story. Based on the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, the story is hard science fiction at its greatest, and ponders the challenge and ramifications of communicating with an alien species during first contact. In what has become a hallmark of Villeneuve’s style, the film boasts a fascinating non-linear storytelling technique that factors heavily into the plot. Though there are really only four characters of note, each is ably performed by an outstanding actor, with Amy Adams’s performance shining through as something special. This film takes advantage of its genre perfectly, altering a single idea about language and contemplating the potential ramifications. It seems as though Denis Villeneuve has been working in science fiction for his entire career; his treatment of Arrival is a deft exploration of the nature of time, language, and communication – both between humans and aliens, and humans and each other.