Unless it somehow gets shown up by the upcoming Chris Pratt–Jennifer Lawrence film Passengers, Arrival is this season’s smartest sci-fi offering. It’s a first-contact saga based on a short story by Ted Chiang and directed by Sicario’s Denis Villeneuve, whose next project is the Blade Runner sequel, which is currently in production. Arrival manages to be a thriller about communication; Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist brought in by the military to figure out a way to talk with octopoid aliens and to learn what they want. But it’s also an eerily convincing film about our fear of the unknown and the other. Its opening sequences, in which 12 spaceships suddenly appear in different spots around the globe, recall the shocky trauma of the days following 9/11.
There’s wonder in Arrival, but there’s dread as well — not just of the mysterious visitors, who are genuinely otherworldly in their look and their thought process, but of the many forces in the US and international governments that are very ready to escalate to war. Arrival’s ultimate combining of Louise’s personal story with that of the aliens comes across as underdeveloped, but there’s no denying Villeneuve’s craft. This is one of the most deftly made movies of the year, sci-fi or otherwise.
When’s it coming out? Nov. 11
6. Nocturnal Animals
This fall brings not one but two Amy Adams movies — and while Arrival may show her delicately channeling different stages of discovery, hope, and grief, Nocturnal Animals absolutely features fiercer outfits. It’s the second film from designer Tom Ford, who’s managed to turn the airless impeccability of his 2009 debut A Single Man into a feature here rather than a bug. Adams plays Susan Morrow, a Los Angeles gallery owner whose life is sleek and empty — her husband (Armie Hammer) is distant, and her work is meaningless. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Susan’s ex-spouse Edward Sheffield, seen both in flashbacks to their youthful marriage and in scenes from the novel he sends her, in which he’s a stand-in for the main character, a man whose wife and daughter are abducted after a chance run-in on the road at night in West Texas.
It’s surely one of the most lavishly envisioned exorcising-the-ex stories ever, though its sense of pettiness takes a while to come through as it skips between ghoulish depictions of swank LA life and Susan’s gritty envisionings of Edward’s book. It’s gorgeously trashy, and at various times Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Shannon, Laura Linney, and Jena Malone show up for smaller roles and they all damn near walk away with the movie.
When’s it coming out? Dec. 9
5. The Edge of Seventeen
Hailee Steinfeld plays a teenager of almost unbearably authentic shittiness in the brutal and rather brilliant dramedy The Edge of Seventeen. Her character Nadine Byrd is a high school junior whose life has, for years, revolved around her best and only friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), until Krista throws everything into turmoil by falling for Nadine’s forever flawless older brother Darian (Blake Jenner). Smart, self-pitying, melodramatic, and moody, Nadine is a dead-on encapsulation of adolescent angst, and her sense of betrayal brought on by her bestie’s romance is both perfectly awful and perfectly understandable, even when it leaves her alone and unhappy.
Kelly Fremon Craig, who wrote and directed The Edge of Seventeen, is frighteningly good at portraying what it’s like to be so stuck in your own personal misery that you can’t see how much of it is self-inflicted, or how terribly it’s leading you to treat other people. And while Steinfeld’s easily the film’s MVP, Woody Harrelson deserves a shout-out as Nadine’s wry confidant of a teacher, as does Hayden Szeto as Erwin, a classmate whose crush on Nadine leaves him batted around horrendously.
When’s it coming out? Nov. 18
4. Things to Come
2016 is truly a year for Isabelle Huppert. In addition to her role in Elle (your newest problematic fave) as a rape victim whose path toward recovery includes sleeping with her attacker, Huppert stars in another singular part in Things to Come. Directed by Eden’s Mia Hansen-Løve, Things to Come is the story of Nathalie, a philosophy professor whose marriage ends and whose publishing career falls abruptly apart, leaving her at loose ends, for the first time in her life, at middle age.
Huppert navigates Nathalie’s often unwelcome freedom with raw openness as well as an especially Gallic equanimity — the laugh she lets out when, after a particularly dark moment, she passes her ex-husband and his new lover on the street is particularly wonderful, as is her loaded friendship with her earnest anarchist protégé (Roman Kolinka). Huppert is the frostily fabulous redheaded queen of French cinema — long may she reign.
When’s it coming out? Dec. 2
At one point in Jackie, Pablo Larraín’s dazzling slipstream of a movie, the freshly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) talks about the many history books she reads, and how what’s written in them becomes the accepted truth. And Jackie is also about the shaping of history, but as done by mythmaking and homemaking, by the “soft” resources traditionally made available to the first lady, who stands at the side of the world leader, and whose identity is inevitably seen as dependent on that of her husband.
Jackie — which is framed by a reporter (Billy Crudup) interviewing and dueling with the grieving titular character — is about the power in seemingly easily dismissible choices like wardrobe, decor, the timing of public appearances, and the bruising act of event planning that is a presidential funeral. It’s also about how, at the dawn of the television age, image is increasingly important. Portman, who’s terrific here, plays Kennedy as a woman who has an uncanny grasp of public perception — and who, the film argues, does more to cement the perception of her husband’s importance in the public memory (and to create the concept of “Camelot”) than any of his own actions.
When’s it coming out? Dec. 9
2. La La Land
In La La Land, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone reunite to winsomely tap-dance down a street in the Hollywood Hills and right to the front of the Oscar race. It’s worth pointing out that the movie, written and directed by Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle and sure to become the most overhyped title of the year, is legitimately irresistible.
Gosling plays a pianist whose all-consuming devotion to jazz is both passionate and self-defeating — his character Sebastian is, as a more successful fellow musician (played by John Legend) notes, a “pain in the ass.” Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actor who sleeps under a mural of Ingrid Bergman but who auditions, unsuccessfully, for a show described as “Dangerous Minds meets The O.C.” Theirs is a romance between dreamers trying their best not to get worn down by the rough realities of their respective businesses, and La La Land reflects the same combination of bubble-delicate aspirations and grinding disappointments. The movie, like its characters, is backwards-looking, a throwback musical with song-and-dance numbers through shared apartments, but it’s also about how the comfort nostalgia provides is imperfect and bittersweet when time is always marching forward.
When’s it coming out? Dec. 2
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a masterful, multipronged heartbreaker — a coming-of-age saga, a queer love story, a film about how expectations of masculinity can be a prison, the tale of a boy and his mother and the imperfect people who serve as his occasional surrogate parents. It’s about growing up in a poor, drug-ravaged part of Miami, and how and why a boy named Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teen, and Trevante Rhodes as an adult) grows up to remake himself in the image of a gangster as a form of camouflage and self-protective posturing. It’s also a staggeringly lovely movie in which a kid bleeding out in the playground and that same kid being taught to swim in the ocean are captured with the same eye for beauty — the bright highs and dark lows of a young life splashed onscreen like an epic, because that’s exactly what it is.
When’s it coming out? Oct. 21