As the year comes to a close, there is an overwhelming sense, highlighted in the snarky tone of most Rogue One reviews, that this was a bad year for the movies.
However, from a purely financial point of view, it’s hard to see how the critics are right. Despite declining attendance and the specific failures of individual films and studios, the movie business made a lot of money in 2016.
A closer look at the year’s box office ranking illustrates the critics' points. It’s not that movies aren’t doing well; it’s that a certain genre of movie isn’t doing well -- and that has the critics in a tizzy.
Take a look at the top 10 list for 2016 (and most of the top 20) and you'll realize you need to be accompanied by a parent to see most of these films. The list is almost entirely occupied by children’s movies, comic book characters and fantasy franchises. At No. 19, Central Intelligence is the highest ranked adult film. No. 21, Clint Eastwood’s Sully, is the highest ranked of what could be called “serious” films. Critically revered films like Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea have struggled to find an audience. The just released La La Land might be able to rescue the prestige film for the year, but it is unlikely to challenge the top 10.
The hand-wringing over this is understandable, if perhaps overwrought. For most of its history, cinema has been about spectacle and entertainment, and the idea that films were supposed to be intellectually gratifying is only the product of a particular generation. It’s not that American culture yearns for intelligent content; it’s that such content increasingly isn’t working on the big screen.
Instead, what we are increasingly seeing, for better or worse, is a sophisticated spectacle as many franchises explore elaborate and increasingly fantastical storytelling as a way to combat staleness. And maybe, just maybe, that’s not such a bad thing.