Right up front: This review is going to be full of spoilers, because I don't know how to do the film any justice in a review without talking about it, and you can't talk about this movie with spoiling it. The only way to do it is to say, "Go see the movie. It's really good," and leave it at that. And, actually, go see the movie. It's great.
It's not often you see a movie about linguistics. The idea of needing to translate something is really more of a gimmick that shows use to increase tension and complicate the plot. Like when a word is incorrectly translated causing the hero to do the wrong thing. Hmm... So, thinking about it, I can't think of any other movies where linguistics were the core of the plot. There might be some, but I don't know what they are (and I'm not going to go look because it's not that important).
The idea of translation, of communicating well and effectively, is one of the vital strands of the movie. I say "strands" because Arrival has several that are all effectively woven into one strong rope of a plot, something at which most movies fail. Which is why most movies are pretty straightforward with just one main idea. Taking several themes and weaving them into a whole is difficult, but director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer pull it off with aplomb. The story is stronger for what they have done and would suffer if any of the strands were pulled out to make it simpler.
Not that the movie gets down into the minutiae of linguistics, but it clearly demonstrates the importance of words and meanings right from the very beginning by telling us what the Sanskrit word we take to mean "war" really means: a desire for more cows. It's a not so subtle foreshadowing of one of the central conflicts of the movie involved in translating the language of the aliens. Oh, yeah, there are aliens, which I was taking as a given but maybe it's not.
The other linguistics issue the movie deals with -- and it's a central theme -- is how language shapes the way we think and how learning other languages can sort of re-wire our thoughts and how we see things. They don't really go into the theory in the movie -- choosing rather to show us as Louise learns to speak the alien language -- but I'm aware of the basics of it. A good example is how we describe things in English, placing the adjectives in front of the noun (the fast little red car), as opposed to the Romance languages (French, Spanish, etc.), placing the adjectives after the noun (the car red fast little). This very simple variance shifts the way we look at the world, and does it in ways we can't see from inside ourselves.
I'm sure there's a metaphor in there.
This whole idea leads into the non-linear aspect of the movie, and this is probably the best non-linear movie I've ever seen. It hearkens back somewhat to Slaughterhouse-Five -- at least, it feels the same tonally in my head, but, then, it's been a while since I read Slaughterhouse -- but much more personal and intimate. It's beautiful and heartbreaking.
And leaves us with the other big question of the movie: If you know that something beautiful is going to end in pain, the kind of pain that will leave you wishing you could die, do you accept it anyway? That's a hard question to answer, and the movie doesn't exactly answer it for us, but it does push us in the direction it wants us to go.
Getting beyond the story, the acting is great. Amy Adams delivers a stellar performance. [It's the kind of movie that makes me want to say that she deserves a best actress Oscar for it, but I don't think her performance in this stands out amongst her body of work overall. American Hustle, yes, but this felt pretty "normal" for her.] Jeremy Renner was great, too. They were a good match on screen. Basically, all of the performances were good and solid, lending to the quality of the film as a whole. As such, no one stands out to me as having given the "best performance of his/her life;" it all just works together perfectly.
Of movies that are likely to get nominated for Best Picture (of the ones I've so far seen), this is my pick. Knowing myself, this will probably stay my pick. I don't think it will win, but I'm going to guess that Arrival will stay my favorite.