JASON'S BEST: The Ten Best Films of 2016 (Return to Jason's Best Main Page)


2016 was a year where so many of our cherished celebrities were taken from us, and it was a year that so many looked at as one of the most difficult years on record. But thankfully, great art was still made, and there were some truly exceptional and landmark films released. I will admit from the outset that my hectic 2016 (which saw me shoot and complete two films, the second season of a web series, and much more) didn't allow me the time to see everything I might normally would have seen, so there's many movies that maybe would have ended up on this list but didn't. But of the 20 films that make up my best of 2016, I was taken on journeys of incredible discovery, I marveled at the skill of filmmakers to tell such unique and powerful stories, and I was reminded yet again just why I love cinema so very much.

Just when we thought that we have seen practically every kind of alien encounter on earth film, along came a film that not only defied the science fiction genre that it was initially sold as, but became an absolute masterpiece as a film so full of complex ideas that many months and years after seeing it, I have no doubt I will continue to be inspired and moved by it, in the continual hopes that more bold filmmakers will present movies of such awesome scope, originality, and vision. Director Denis Villeneuve, who has continually shown such a mastery of story and visual composition in many films before this, delivers an astonishing and haunting story with Amy Adams playing a linguistics professor who is tasked with helping to help a strange group of aliens communicate with the people of Earth. From the very beginning, Villeneuve gives us such haunting and moody visuals, not only of the 12 strange spacecraft that lie stationary throughout the world, but also in the introduction of Adams's character. This haunting imagery achieves its effect not only with the visuals (with gorgeous cinematography by Bradford Young) but also with another landmark musical score by Johann Johannsson. As the people of the world attempt to discover whether the aliens come in peace or are a potential threat, the movie so beautifully takes its time in letting us follow what it takes to actually try to learn a new language, and how the steps come together to finally understand what another species is saying. And in a film all about communication, its a remarkable surprise twist by film's end which has so much more to say about the essentials of communication between all of us, and how the lack of it could ultimately destroy a relationship or even destroy a world. By the end, the film becomes a strong testament to our crazy times, and also manages to tackle so many complex themes, including the idea of time itself, and whether we would choose certain paths if we knew their ultimate destination was tragic. It struggles with the concept of what our journeys are made of, and whether the journey is always worth it no matter what the end. I was smiling ear to ear by the time this film finally concluded, not only for its expert craft and all the talent working at the top of their game, but also for the vast array of ideas I found myself thinking back in the days that followed. "Arrival" is a reminder of what movies should be. Original movies that ponder our greatest ideas and themes. Intelligently written movies that challenge and excite our minds, not just satisfy a thirst for action, spectacle, or comic book familiarity. Like the greatest of movies, it takes us on a journey to someplace we've never been but someplace totally familiar, giving us new ways of seeing what we should know in our hearts already. It is not only the best film of 2016, but one of the greatest film achievements ever.
I so love when filmmakers take a huge chance and risk on something that shouldn't work, and are rewarded with not only a film that does work, but exceeds expectations and becomes a truly special landmark in cinema. Such was the case with Damien Chazelle's extraordinary musical, telling the complicated love story between Ryan Gosling's Sebastian and Emma Stone's Mia. From the opening scenes, I knew I was in for an absolute treat, as a scene of horrible frustration (the typical case of L.A. drivers being stuck in traffic) was turned into a rousing musical number where those people got out of their stuck cars, and performed. Chazelle struck an absolutely perfect balance between how much his characters sing and how much the regular dialogue moves the story forward. In making a contemporary musical work, he also was able to deliver a throwback to the great movie musicals of the past, and it truly deserves to stand among their ranks as one of the greatest movie musicals ever made. It's able to capture so perfectly a timeless story of love, love's complexities, life's complexities, and more in its story of two lovers trying to find success both in the music world and the film acting world. Gosling and Stone are such a delight in this film, and Chazelle is able to make bold choices throughout while also making very traditional choices to deliver a film that so completely satisfies. The ending definitely was unexpected, and Chazelle ended up creating one of the greatest closing sequences of all time in how he imagines a possible alternate reality for his characters, and its emotional impact cannot be overstated. This film not only possesses every great element that the best movie musicals require, but also what any great movie along requires. I can't stop smiling thinking about this film and the experience of seeing it, and it's one I know I will revisit and delight in so many times in the future. I only hope more brave filmmakers are given the access and ability to make bold experiments like this in the future.
One of the greatest revelations and genuine film surprises of the year was this incredibly moving film by director Barry Jenkins. While on the surface telling a story of three formative times in the life of a gay black man, it somehow manages to encapsulate so many powerful and universal themes, including the struggle to overcome poverty, the tragedies of intolerance, the struggle to overcome obstacles in our lives, acceptance, the journey from adolescence into adulthood, sexual identity, and probably the most powerful theme of all: love. Jenkins did such a masterful job in casting three different actors to play the main character Chiron in the three different episodes, and they all were so believable in portraying the same young man. But Jenkins does far more than that. His choice of music and the gorgeous cinematography elevate this film to a completely different level. Instead of the usual more expected gritty kind of visual feel that might accompany a story like this, Jenkins made this film so rich and vibrant in its colors, it's an absolutely beauty to watch. It's an astonishing character study and such an important testament to the important value of understanding and acceptance that is so needed in our current times.
Given how public and pored over the O.J. Simpson murder trial had been in the mid 90's, I would have said that a nearly 8 hour documentary about O.J. would be the last thing I would be interested in watching. But what a surprise I was in for when I sat down to watch one of the most expertly crafted and important documentaries ever made. Director Ezra Edelman ended up making much more than just a documentary about the O.J. trial, and much more than a film about O.J. himself. Through meticulous research and incredibly crafted scenes, this film manages to tell O.J.'s story while also commenting on decades of American history and the cultural and racial conflicts that have plagued us all along. O.J.'s story becomes a microcosm of America itself, and the seven hour plus running time allows us to see the craftings of celebrity when O.J. became famous and became one of the most beloved sports figures of all time. As O.J. rises to fame, we then see the racial strife between the police and the African American community throughout that same time frame. It's haunting to watch the buildup to the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and how the inevitable clash of racial tensions would ultimately come to a full head by the time of the O.J. trial. Even by the time the documentary reaches the much publicized trial, Edelman manages to present new perspectives that we hadn't seen before. And once the trial ends, Edelman doesn't end the story, but lets us see all of the bizarre things that happened after O.J. was acquitted and the ultimate incarceration for a strange robbery in Las Vegas that ultimately brought Simpson to prison. Sobering, deeply engaging, revelatory, sad, and complex, this documentary is well worth the investment of time to watch it, as it truly manages to present so many of the problems we struggle with today as a society, and gives a background so needed to hopefully help us avoid the mistakes of the past.
In a year of films that dealt with the issues surrounding grief and the process of dealing with grief, none was more powerful than this deeply moving and touching film by director Kenneth Lonergan. Lonergan always takes his time with his films, and it's evident in the well written screenplay and the solid direction, and the assembly of a cast that was absolutely first rate. Casey Affleck rightly received praise for his completely lived-in performance as Lee, who has to return home when his older brother passes away, only to discover that he's been named guardian to his brother's 16 year old son. Obviously, that kind of plotline lends itself to some truly emotional scenes, but I wasn't expecting just how much deep truth and raw honesty is present in this film. Through flashbacks, we slowly witness more discoveries, which culminates in one of the year's most intensely emotional scenes, when Lee is reunited with his ex-wife Randi (played by Michelle Williams in another astonishing performance). Lonergan has always does a solid job of giving us richly drawn character studies, not films based on plot. And this was definitely no exception. Lonergan masterfully balances the obvious heavy drama with an unexpected dose of comedy as well. These are the kind of movies I wish we got a whole lot more of ... movies of deep resonance by accomplished filmmakers.
I'll admit it. At first, I wasn't sure what to think of Lucasfilm's plans to release stand alone Star Wars movies that would take place outside of the usual "Skywalker Saga" of films, but wow, was I ever convinced what a good idea it was! "Rogue One" was the prequel film we always dreamt of and wanted when George Lucas released his original 3 prequel films. This film was SO incredible in how it so completely brought me back to the wonder of seeing that first film a long time ago, and through its use of incredible technology and set design, was so totally convincing of existing in the world right in the leadup to the events of Episode IV. In the opening crawl of Episode IV, we heard only briefly about "rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet." From that simple preamble, director Gareth Edwards and an incredibly accomplished cast, delivered one of the greatest Star Wars movies ever made. A rousing adventure from start to finish, with so much true emotion and suspense, and an incredibly brave and somber ending that lent the Star Wars universe a whole new level of emotional investment than we even had before. Felicity Jones did an incredible job as the next great female heroin of the usual male-dominated Star Wars universe, Jyn Erso, whose personal connection to the developing Death Star gives her a unique and powerful character arc. The band of rebels she brings together for one of the truly epic battles in Star Wars history are all so good, from Diego Luna's conflicted Cassian, to Wen Jiang's Baze Malbus, to Donnie Yen's Chirrut mwe, and even to the new droid, K-2SO, who provides one of the most emotional sacrificial moments in the entire film. In telling this new but familiar story, Gareth Edwards brought in other characters from the universe we know, including a glimpse at Darth Vader that truly reminded us why we first feared him and were in awe of his presence from those first early days when the character was unleashed in the late 70's. That final sequence of Vader is truly one of the most magnificent Star Wars sequences of any film ever. In telling such a powerful story of individuals fighting together and sacrificing themselves in the greater good, the filmmakers here have not only shown such reverence to the Star Wars legacy, but also created a film of true emotional power, showing us the value of sacrifice, fighting against oppressive power, and as Faith Bruner, a very good friend and partner, wrote after being inspired by the film "Maybe it's not about some ending, some big ending purpose. Maybe every moment of beauty and love along the way, Through thousands of years, Through life after life, Story after story ... Each one is the purpose, Each moment of beautiful love. Each one is the purpose. And each one is a victory. And the meaning behind it all." It's a masterful film, and makes me so incredibly excited for future stand alone films, and the ability to find all new stories in this incredible universe of possibilities that was created so long ago.
There were several movies that dealt with grief in 2016, including a documentary I made, and one of the strongest films I experienced about grief this year was also one of the year's very best films. Having studied the JFK assassination so deeply in my 20's, I was understandably drawn to any story that revolved around those dark days in 1963, but I was unprepared for the haunting brilliance that director Pablo Larrain brought with this intimate look at Jackie Kennedy, and her process of grief in those immediate dark days when her life changed completely. With one unique artistic choice after another (including the unconventional musical score, the shot composition, and so much more), this film presents a dizzying journey through this one woman's journey through grief, and how in her case, she also was working to cement a legacy for her husband ... a vibrant President who was so brutally murdered in front of the whole world to see at such a young age. Natalie Portman delivers another astonishing performance, not only capturing the former First Lady's mannerisms and voice, but more importantly, her strength and vulnerability, all at the same time. The film truly draws us into the tragedy of JFK's death in a way few other films or documentaries have managed to do, on such an intimate, personal level. As Jackie crafts the funeral arrangements and grieves for a nation, she struggles to find the time to grieve for herself. And by the end, during a masterfully written and performed scene with the late John Hurt as her priest, we finally witness a journey of grief come full circle ... at least for its first round. This film may never let us truly "know" Jackie Kennedy, but one thing's for sure, we certainly get a sense of what it must have been like.
I so love movies that take such an off-the-wall sounding concept and are able to make such a believable and memorable film from it. Such was the case with this film, one of the true surprises of 2016. Just listen to this concept: in a not too distant future, the laws of "The City" proclaim that single people who have broken up have to be taken to "The Hotel", where they are told that they have to find a romantic partner in 45 days. If they don't, they will be transformed into an animal. Basically, it imagines a future where being single is a criminal act. That concept alone invites so many possibilities for a film that could tackle so many issues surrounding societal views on being single, how to handle breakups, etc, and this film managed to do that and so much more. It manages to play comedically with a lot of these themes, but is also brutal and realistic in how in conveys themes of a society where single people are outcasts to protect the idea of couples deserving special protection. Colin Farrell is the most recognized actor in a cast who all delivered incredibly real, lived-in performances ... as well as Rachel Weisz, who doesn't enter the film until later but is a presence throughout. In a Hollywood that wants to produce so many remakes and adaptations of "safe" material (like comic books), it's so refreshing when you see filmmakers get support to make truly original films like this one ... and also films about ideas that you end up pondering long after the film is over. For example ... what animal would you pick if you had to be turned into one? ;-)
There have been many documentaries made about the various wars fought over the years, but very few have been as up close and personal, on both sides, and contained such haunting imagery as this powerful film from filmmakers Bill Guttentag and Michael Ware. Ware was able to embed himself during the incredibly early days of the 2003 Iraq War invasion, giving him unprecedented access to the conditions on the ground in Iraq leading up the American invasion, and then continued through those early days. The footage is raw and uncompromising, and like the best documentaries about war tend to do, it allows us to see the true human sacrifice and carnage when people and governments on high decide to wage war. There's never any easy answers, but as this film demonstrates, there's suffering on an unbelievable level, and complex issues that we should be discussing and facing. This is never more true than in an incredibly haunting sequence which I'll never be able to shake of an Iraqi slowly dying on the ground while in American custody. I think anyone who sends soldiers into war should be required to watch films like this one so they know exactly what they are taking on, and the lives they are now putting in harm's way.
It's a testament to the power of the acting in this film that it manages to transcend its clear attachment to the original stage production and become a truly extraordinary piece of work. Clearly showing his passion for the material after having already acted in the show on Broadway, Denzel Washington not only acted but directed this incredibly moving film, and he acts alongside his Broadway co-star Viola Davis, in a pair of deeply lived-in and heart wrenching characters in the adaptation of August Wilson's stage production. In telling the story of a struggling African American family in the 1950's, August Wilson crafted a deeply moving slice of life, creating characters of incredible depth and conflict, and portraying the idea of the fences we keep around ourselves to protect ourselves, but also the ones we keep ourselves trapped in. August Wilson's remarkable dialogue is preserved, even if that makes the film seem quite obvious as a stage production. But all of the actors in this film elevate the material to a master class in acting, with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis inhabiting rather than acting, and delivering two of the greatest performances of their careers, and of this year. The supporting cast is also impeccable, but Jovan Adepo in particular stands toe to toe with Washington and Davis, portraying Cory, their son who endures his own hell and does his best to emerge from his father's shadow. Having not seen the stage play, I was deeply moved by the turns the story took, and felt like I was part of living this family's complicated life by the end. It may not be a cinematic marvel of technique, but being directed by an actor himself, it is absolute example of the best that film ... or any acting ... can deliver.

And the next ten:

11) LION
It's a story we've seen portrayed many times, both in real life and in films, but in the right hands and with the perfect cast, a film can transcend that story and become something truly remarkable. And that was definitely the case with "Lion", an extraordinary and deeply moving film from director Garth Davis. Based on a remarkable true story, it portrays the life of Saroo Brierley and how at age 5, he ended up lost on the streets of Calcutta and was later adopted by an Australian family. Decades later, he took the journey to find the family and the place he left behind. That situation alone provides so many dramatic possibilities, but I was so deeply moved by the unexpected turns in this journey, resulting in a film that is at times frightening, sad, but ultimately so inspirational. The opening part of this film where the boy is lost are so hauntingly portrayed, and his journey later in life captures so many incredible emotions. Dev Patel is extraordinary in this role, and he's surrounded by a truly gifted supporting cast, among them Nicole Kidman, the always great Rooney Mara, and David Wenham, among others. And it was all crafted together through beautiful cinematography and a great musical score. I was surprised how much I ended up loving this film, but it's definitely one of the year's best.

In a year filled with some truly great documentaries, one of the best was also one of the best political documentaries ever made. This film is a maddening and remarkable glimpse into one potentially promising politician, New York Congressman Andrew Weiner, and the sexual scandal that was his downfall. Weiner gave the filmmaker incredible access to follow him through all the various trials and tribulations he faced in the aftermath of the first reveal of the sexual scandal, where he only ends up finding himself embroiled in one yet again. The film ends up engendering so many different emotions and tackles so many difficult questions, especially about a candidate's character and what role they play in his abilities to do the jobs bestowed on them by voters. We get to see the man without filters and by the end, we don't have any easy answers to the difficult larger questions it ends up posing, but we definitely a tragic fall from whatever angle you choose to define it. Whether of a promising politician falling from the faults of his character, a political system failing, or a society and media circus failing. Either way, this is an important documentary and a definite must see.

Prior to 2016, I had always been quite vocal about how tired I was of the trend in recent years of having one big budget comic book movie after another. But 2016 helped change that opinion, and no, it wasn't because of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. No, it was this Marvel film that ended up surprising me, and by year's end, I was able to sit a little easier with all the focus on comic book movies. It was the first real comic book movie to really navigate skillfully into satire, and bravely earned an R rating. It managed to convey a lot of the traditions of the comic book movie, but then managed to subvert them at the same time. Ryan Reynolds was so passionate about bringing Deadpool to the screen, and his passion for the role shows throughout his entire performance. It's wickedly funny and biting, while also having a heart that is absolutely earned. Marvel, you have me on board now, along with this and Captain America: Civil War ... keep the journey this good, and I'll stick with you.

One of the many things I love about movies is the ability through documentaries or fictional films to learn about real life events that I had never heard anything about. And when those films end up also being such inspiring entertainments also, that's even better. That was the case with this film, which tells the remarkable true story of three African American women who were the brilliant mathematical minds working behind the scenes at NASA in the 1960's to eventually help launch humans into space. With it being the 1960's, they of course weren't allowed to be a public face of NASA like other employees, so their story is definitely powerful even before you start watching the film to know the struggles they endured with racism and discriminination while their minds were allowed to do some of the greatest work anyone could ever do. The film wonderfully tells each unique experience of three women, each played incredibly well by Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Mone. Such a timely film, it balances so many tones wonderfully, as its filled with comedy, maddening examples of the discrimination they faced, and so much inspiration for the ability to overcome the things that oppress to do truly remarkable things.

In recent years, I think those of us who have been fans of Oliver Stone's films have been disappointed by his latest films, possibly because the standards were set so high in so many remarkable films through the late 80's and early 90's. And although some were disappointed by this film, I thought for what it was that it was about as close a return to form for Stone that we're likely to get. While we'd love to see the Stone of old taking on the establishment and history like he did before, this film was still a detailed and moving insight into one of the most notorious individuals of recent times, Edward Snowden, and the path that led him to change his destiny forever and risk his life to reveal government secrets about a path that he believed was wrong. Joseph Gordon Levitt was particular effective in his role as Snowden, and through his performance and Stone's direction, we see even more clearly what motivated him, and also get a glimpse into government surveillance that is most definitely controversial and at the very least, worthy of transparency and perhaps a larger discussion in our democracy. Shailene Woodley is also very good in her performance as Snowden's girlfriend Lindsay Mills, seeing how their relationship struggled and the difficulties Lindsay encountered as Snowden took the steps he felt in his heart he needed to make. One of the most powerful moments in the film is when the real Edward Snowden makes an appearance, and we see that his journey is still ongoing and the debate will likely continue for some time whether he was a patriot or a traitor.

Almost no story is more passionate to me than people fighting against huge odds for what is right, and end up working so hard to effect real change. It takes incredible courage for such fights, and what issue is more passionate and more intense than two people being in love with one another that society deems as being wrong for being together. That's exactly what happened to Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, whose challenge of their anti-miscegenation arrest for their marriage in Virginia led to a legal battle that would go all the way to the US Supreme Court. This true story is brought to powerful life by director Jeff Nichols, and two incredibly nuanced and moving performances by Joel Edgerton and particularly Ruth Negga. Nichols make not break any new ground in the true story adapted to film department, but the incredible performances and his choice to focus more on the relationship netween the Lovings's marriage instead of the court case was an incredibly wise decision. By the end, it demonstrates just how dangerous it is when society determines what is normal for a loving relationship between two people, and how the system should be taken on if it tries to do that in the future. The Lovings effected necessary change, and now more than ever, this film reminds us how important it is for more courageous people to stand up and fight for what they believe in ... and for who they love.

I'll admit that I never thought I'd have one of the Marvel movies in my top 20 of any year, as I haven't been the biggest fan of the glut of comic book superhero movies that have become the norm at the boxoffice in recent years. But I have to admit, this was a very solid film, and I very much have to admire how Marvel has built this universe, and how this film came at the right time to pit the Avengers against one another instead of how Batman vs Superman came out so early in the DC universe. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, and how it was able to provide interesting issues and differing beliefs that set Iron Man and Captain America against one another, forcing the remaining Avengers to take sides. I also admire how a film full of elaborate action sequences and so many characters manages to still have interesting character development throughout, creating for me the greatest entry in the Marvel universe. You won me over this year Marvel, well done.

I have to admit it, this movie worked for me. Its concept was definitely timely and haunting, imagining a society where people used an app called Nerve to dare other players into riskier and riskier acts in the promise of winning more money, while all the time being a pawn of a greater entity in control of the fates of the people who dare to play. Sure the ending wasn't nearly what it could have been, but there's enough style and suspense in this film that kept me engaged throughout. And it's not hard to believe the ideas in the film, the way that social media has changed our lives, and how the lives of others seem so easy to dismiss or manipulate when hidden behind computer screens and phones. Emma Roberts was very effective playing Vee, someone who never risked anything in her life before being sucked into the app's charms, and Dave Franco does an admirable job as Ian, the man who ends up tied up with Vee in the game, dedicated to seeing the finish one way or the other. Just one thing though that gave me great pause ... is Juliette Lewis really old enough to play a Mom now? Damn, I feel old.

It's rare that I end up loving a movie so much because of its imperfections, but that was definitely the case in director Ti West's brave experiment in creating a new entry in the Western genre that treads a very fine line in tone, and while it may take some missteps, I have to admit that I was thoroughly entertained throughout in one of the most memorable filmgoing experiences I had this past year. Ethan Hawke was very effective playing a mysterious stranger who wanders into a town with his beloved dog (and his dog certainly wins the award for Best Performance by an Animal in 2016) and comes up against a marshall trying to keep the peace and a group of despicable men who end up orchestrating a cycle of violence. From the very beginning, director West pays homage to the western genre, and then plays with convention, in a film that balances dark humor with vivid violence. At times, it may not always work effectively (John Travolta clearly had fun playing the role of the marshall, but his over the top performance sometimes takes away from the film), but there's so much to admire in an effort to try something different in one of the oldest film genres that's ever existed.

We've seen so many war films over the years, presenting so many moving stories of bravery, heroism, and sacrifice. But until 2016, we had never quite seen a story quite like this one ... the incredible true story of American Army Medic Desmond Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II. What made him unique though was that he was a soldier who vowed to never kill another human being, and through all the tests he had to endure to remain steadfast to his conviction, he ended up becoming the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without having ever fired a shot. That story alone would be intriguing enough to watch, but Mel Gibson proved once again why he is a gifted director, presenting battle scenes of such realism, and finding the perfect actor in Andrew Garfield to bring this powerful role to life. The heroism on display in this film is far different from many rousing war films. It's more subtle, more complex, and as a result, a very powerful examination of war and selflessness.