The most important films of 2016

Image courtesy 20th Century Fox.

Annual top 10 lists are boring and dumb and arbitrary and full of movies nobody’s ever heard of. A big goal of this site is to try and extrapolate the future of movies, so, instead of talking about the year’s best movies, we’re going to talk about the year’s most influential or culturally significant movies.

1) Deadpool

Deadpool was the first of five comic book movies this year. Disney and Marvel Studios would win the box office derby and close out the year with two of the safest, most bland movies in the genre, but Deadpool proved in February they didn’t need to play it safe.

Opening at $132.7 million, Deadpool took the records for the best ever February opening weekend, the best ever opening weekend for a first-time director (Tim Miller) and the best ever opening weekend for a superhero movie that wasn’t a sequel. It also took the record for best opening ever for an R-rated movie and remains the only R-rated movie to open higher than $100 million. Ending its run with $782.6 million worldwide, it’s the biggest ever R-rated movie and the biggest X-Men movie.

All of this success comes for a movie that barely got made after a 10-year odyssey for producer/star Ryan Reynolds. Debuting in 1991 and not getting his own solo title until 1997, Deadpool represents just the third adaptation of a property from the Modern Age of Comics — almost all other movies are based on characters with several decades of history. Thinking they would be cancelled at literally any moment, the writers did pretty much whatever they wanted with the character and created the distinctive style that made him famous. In a 2004 issue, Deadpool described his appearance as “Ryan Reynolds crossed with a Shar Pei,” drawing the actor’s attention to the comic. When Deadpool’s film rights were acquired by Fox in 2004, Reynolds was already attached, but the character wouldn’t hit the big screen until 2009’s hated X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Reynolds was vocal about his distaste for that film’s interpretation of the character, which became a point of outrage for the fans, but didn’t want anyone else playing Deadpool. Reynolds pushed for years to get a more faithful solo adaptation made, but to no avail.

Fan reaction helped push the movie forward every step of the way. Rabid response to a script leak in 2010 lead to funding for test footage, which itself had to be illegally leaked in 2014 before the entire film got the green light.

Deadpool reacts to his own astounding success. Because of the character’s self-awareness, Deadpool’s advertising campaign was an extension of the movie in a way that couldn’t have been done with any other character. There are a handful of different dissertations that could be written on the marketing effort. Image courtesy 20th Century Fox.

Deadpool became a cultural phenomenon — predictably for audiences, but startlingly to Fox. It’s a testament to the profitability of giving the people what they want — not exactly rocket science.

Fox was apprehensive about the R-rating, but its massive success will herald March’s Logan, which is reported to be an ultra-violent sendoff for the Wolverine character.

2) The Mermaid

If you haven’t heard of this one, that’s OK — it only released in 106 U.S. theaters, making just $3.2 million. It made more than $500 million in China, though.

Releasing on the Chinese New Year, The Mermaid smashed opening day records in China. It went on to become the fastest film ever to ¥1 billion ($152.4 million), hitting the mark in just four days, the first movie ever to make ¥3 billion ($459 million) and the first movie ever to make $500 million in the Chinese market alone. That makes it just the seventh film to earn $500 million or more in a single market — the other six did so in the U.S., obviously.

The movie’s success was unprecedented, but not entirely unexpected. The Mermaid is director Steven Chow’s third film to become the highest-grossing of all time in China, following 2013’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and 1991’s Fight Back to School. He’s a noted career-maker for the young, unknown actresses he casts to play against him. Known as the Sing Girls, they often go on to have successful careers afterward. He did it again here, casting Lin Yun in the lead role after a highly publicized open tryout with more than 120,000 participants. The film also employed “hunger marketing,” a tactic to artificially create the feeling that supply is limited. In this case, that just meant not screening the film for test audiences and theater managers.

A surge in theater building has China on pace to become the world’s biggest movie market within the next year, and the rapidity of the market’s growth is reflected in the all-time box office. This year’s Zootopia and Warcraft are no. 7 and 8 on China’s all-time box office list, respectively — China actually saved Warcraft, which flopped domestically — and more and more movies like Now You See Me 2 and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story are setting themselves in China or casting Chinese characters in an attempt to pick up that audience. The Mermaid, the first major international success that was primarily Chinese, is a huge landmark for this progression.

3) The Witch

This one is important for purely artistic reasons. Rarely has a film ever been more emblematic of the year it was released.

The year 2016 had a bizarre David/Goliath dynamic, with budgets soaring but the quality of those movies — particularly their special effects — flagging greatly. While this was happening, several smaller budget films were released with dynamic, often disturbing visuals. These particularly included fantastic horror movies like Lights Out. Additionally, in the early part of the year at least, religious themes were a major refrain, with Hail, Caesar!, 10 Cloverfield Lane and even Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice all overtly discussing the nature of God.

The Witch took all of these trends to extremes. Costing just $3 million, it eventually made $25.1 million in the U.S. While other films were scary and tough to watch, this one was the toughest. Where other movies talked about God, this one was unintelligible without some basic understanding of scripture and the religious history behind Puritain New England and the upcoming Salem Witch Trials.

If you watch one movie from 2016, it should be this one. Not only is it the year’s best, it’s the year’s most emblematic movie.

Image courtesy Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios.

4) Zootopia

An animated movie from Disney about talking animals becoming a major success isn’t news. The sheer amount of them doing so, however, is.

The top four movies of the year at the worldwide box office are Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, Zootopia and Jungle Book, all Disney properties. When Rogue One joins them in the coming weeks, that’ll make the top five movies all Disney properties. Three of the current top four are movies about talking animals, as is the current no. 5, Universal’s Secret Life of Pets.

The thing to understand is how dominant Disney is already expected to be in any given year right now. With Marvel, Pixar and Star Wars virtually guaranteeing the studio three billion-dollar hits a year, other studios have been scrambling to find equally reliable licenses. When Disney strikes even more gold from original properties like this, that pressure only mounts. The spikes from Zootopia and Jungle Book helped the studio to a record-breaking $7 billion year in 2016.

The worldwide top 10 as a whole features five comic book movies, four talking animal movies and a Star Wars movie. For better or worse, this is clearly what the movie landscape is going to look like for the next few years.

5) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Before there were superhero movies, there were Superman and Batman movies. When X-Men and Spider-man were proving that comics were a viable source of adaptations in the early ’00s, the Superman and Batman franchises already had unpopular sequels to unpopular third movies under their belts. Only 23 movies had ever made $1 billion worldwide by Dawn of Justice’s March 29 release — Zootopia didn’t hit the mark until June — but if ever there was a movie guaranteed to make that much, it was this one.

It made $330.4 million domestic and $873.3 million worldwide amid putrid reviews.

Five of the movies that had made $1 billion at that point were superhero movies — with Civil War joining the club later in the year — two of them starring Batman on his own! This one makes $873.3 million.

Seriously — did they know? They had to know. Somebody must have pointed this out.

The slow, delicious collapse of Warner Bros. and the DCEU is going to be an ongoing storyline through the next year or more, and as embarrassing as Suicide Squad was and their upcoming movies could be, this will always be the iceberg that sunk the ship.

$873.3 million for two of the most instantly recognizable characters in any medium ever? Unbelievable.

6) Captain America: Civil War

From its status as the top movie of the year to its role within the MCU, Civil War is perfunctory. $1.2 billion worldwide? Sure, that sounds about right. If anything surprises me, it’s that this movie didn’t make any more.

Despite being the biggest movie of the year, Civil War’s most important context is its relationship to Batman v Superman. They’re essentially the same sell, with each major comic publisher’s two biggest names coming to blows on the big screen. The difference is Marvel has eight years of storytelling backing that conflict up, while Batman v Superman is in many ways DC’s attempt to catch up.

In a move that was more embarassing than the film itself, DC challenged Marvel in 2014 by scheduling this movie to release May 6, opposite Civil War. Marvel ignored them like so many fleas, and a few months later, DC fucked off to late March and tried to convince everyone they actually thought it was a better date.

7) Ghostbusters

Here’s another movie whose release was contested since its announcement — not because of what was releasing against it, but because a lot of people didn’t want it released.

From the moment Ghostbusters was announced and accelerating through the trailers’ reception, this movie tore America in half between those who thought it represented a feminist milestone and those who realized how stupid that notion was. Sony went out of its way to exacerbate this, creating an artificial environment in which Ghostbusters was feminist and any backlash against it or even criticism of it was sexist.

Here in the real world, the movie was a huge failure, not just because it was awful, but because its budget was insane. At $144 million, this movie’s break-even point — two and a half times its budget worldwide by conventional wisdom, probably more for a movie with an intensive advertising campaign like this one had — was $360 million, $60 million more than what the beloved 1984 classic made.

Sony had initially wanted to turn this into a cinematic universe that could compete with Disney. Instead, after suffering terrible word of mouth and grossing just $229.1 million worldwide, it’s a financial failure, and a sequel is unlikely.

The gender tension this movie caused, even more asinine in the face of its meager performance, remains unresolved.

8) Suicide Squad

If anyone is still wondering why there’s so much negativity surrounding the DCEU, look no further. This movie was a long, extremely public ordeal that made it more and more obvious that DC and Warner Bros. didn’t have a fucking clue what they were doing at any point in the process.

It started all the way back at comic con 2015, more than a year before the movie was released, when the trailer was “leaked” online. Warner Bros. said they released it officially because they couldn’t get the pirated version off the Internet, but I don’t believe that for a second and neither should you, and if they really couldn’t get it off the web, that would reflect more poorly on the company than lying about it anyway.

Months later, after Deadpool’s success and Batman v Superman’s collapse, news broke that Suicide Squad would undergo reshoots. The rumor was that it would be reshot and edited to be less like Batman v Superman and more like Deadpool, but even having seen the movie, we really don’t know. The rumors swirled more and more aggressively with each new trailer, as they progressively became lighter in tone and fed the fire. Just before the movie was released, stories started coming out about the rushed schedule and dueling edits.

Suicide Squad starred Jared Leto as the aptly named Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film. Image courtesy Warner Bros.

The end result was a movie that didn’t deliver on a lot of its promises. This was supposed to be the first superhero movie with a real female lead, but Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) was pushed to the background, despite Robbie’s performance being one of the movie’s few bright spots. The hotly anticipated new portrayal of the Joker (Jared Leto) was cut down to just a few scenes, with Leto publicly stating his disappointment with the final product.

The film’s relatively few fans were vocal, even petitioning to shut down Rotten Tomatoes because of an unfair bias against DC movies. Bias should be avoided, of course, but look at all the clowning involved in this production. They couldn’t keep trade secrets, they had no idea what they were selling or who they were selling it to and months after it was released, we still don’t really know who was driving the bus. If this were a business, would you buy stock in it? Would you want to work for these people?

There definitely is a bias against the DCEU from film writers, but it’s not an unfair one. If Warner Bros. wants people to come into their movies with an open mind, they need to start by ending the steady stream of horror stories coming out of their productions. The now-famous open letter from a former Warner staffer already claims that next year’s Wonder Woman will be “another mess.”

9) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Like Ghostbusters for Sony, this was Warner Bros.’ attempt to establish a new franchise that could compete year-in, year-out with Disney’s trusty trio, and unlike Ghostbusters, it worked.

Opening at $74.4 million and going on to gross $772.5 million worldwide, Fantastic Beasts was a decent success. Warner Bros. has been making some horrible fiscal decisions the past few years — this movie’s own $180 million budget is dicey — but this one was a success that didn’t get slaughtered critically and promises more successes on the way.

There’s potential trouble on the horizon, though, with the backlash over Johnny Depp’s casting.

10) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The first ever Star Wars movie to abandon the opening crawl.

In hindsight, that sounds pretty stupid. “The first ever Star Wars movie to ditch the most unifying, iconic part of the series.” But this movie is going to make $1 billion at least no matter what it does.

People are never going to stop loving — and funding — Star Wars. The prequel trilogy proved that. But where The Force Awakens was disappointing, this movie is a real sign of trouble. Disney has been cultivating distinctive directors for their feature series, and the first one to take a real risk with director Gareth Edwards was re-shot and turned into an editing nightmare, with a clearly different plot and demonstrable lies from the studio about the film process.

If there was any doubt this franchise is bulletproof, this one was fired from point blank range. People are going to third and fourth showings of this movie, knowing how weak the characters are, knowing how thin the plot is, knowing that it defiles two beloved actors — one a knight two decades passed, one a Star Wars icon who died just days ago.

Who cares, right? It’s Star Wars.

Image courtesy Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios.

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One Response to The most important films of 2016

  1. Pingback: ‘Logan’ underwhelms in final outing | Reel Entropy

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