ByTravis Ryan, writer at
Classic film and chocolate milk enthusiast.
Travis Ryan

With the results of the Golden Globes now written in the history books and the fast approaching, it's important that we look back and understand how 2016 functioned as a whole in terms of cinema. It seemed unlikely for a long time that anyone would call it a great year for movies, with only the occasional quality film for months on end until we reached Oscar-bait season. Even so, I would call 2016 largely a disappointment, a drop in quality from years past. While we were granted some really stunning movies by the end, I wouldn't call it exceptional to say that something like or 10 Cloverfield Lane were the best films of the year for months on end.

In my humble diagnosis, 2016 was stuck in the past. For better or worse — and it was typically for worse — the lack of new ideas and severe retreading of old material created some of the least innovative releases we've seen in a long time. While there are obvious exceptions, this was one of the tamest years in film history. It was tiresome, predictable and often simply boring. So here is my postmortem for a year that really let me down.

A Fallback On Franchises

"Captain America: Civil War" was a fun film that brought no new ideas to the table. [Walt Disney Studios]
"Captain America: Civil War" was a fun film that brought no new ideas to the table. [Walt Disney Studios]

A major issue was 2016's reliance on franchises to make a buck. It may just be the direction cinema is headed, but studios seem to be scrambling to get a hold of a cinematic universe they can milk dry, year after year. Indeed, the Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to be the main culprit here, but the strategy extends back as long as Hollywood has existed. Audiences will pay to see more of the same, so studios will greenlight anything that has made money in the past. While we've seen this pattern play out before, 2016 may signify the worst this has ever been.

The problem here is time. While I enjoy the films, along with the Star Wars, X-Men and Star Trek franchises, there's a newfound expectation that these films be released every single year, or at least every other year. We're starting to see a serious lack of innovation and an even bigger lack in quality as these films are being pumped out in troves just to retain the interest of the fan base.

While has maintained its benchmark standard with Civil War and Doctor Strange, suffers immensely from a lack of time and a lack of artistry. Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad were some of the most highly anticipated releases of 2016, and they were perhaps the two sloppiest films of the year. This isn't just an issue with superhero films, either. Finding Dory was yet another letdown from , wallowing in the ideas of its predecessor, and it signifies a crunch-time mentality in these studios, which hampers creative innovation and leaves audiences only mildly entertained or entirely disappointed.

My advice to studios? Trust your audience. I'll wait with severe anticipation for the new releases of my favorite directors, no matter how many years they may take to find a release date. When you plan a calendar of your next dozen films spanning years into the future, a formula that the MCU has created and many studios are now copying, you put your creative team in a different mindset. These films aren't being made for fun anymore; they're being made for release. 2016's biggest blockbusters were mostly mediocre or altogether terrible, and I can only assume that more time would have geared these films into passion products instead of cash grab slog-fests.

Clinging To Nostalgia

Darth Vader's presence was a major selling point for "Rogue One." [Walt Disney Studios]
Darth Vader's presence was a major selling point for "Rogue One." [Walt Disney Studios]

Nostalgia isn't a bad thing. If you can create a film that reminds audiences of a past they haven't thought about in a long time, this is a powerful accomplishment. La La Land demonstrated this beautifully. However, a film must be able to stand on its own. This is another key failure in 2016's releases that failed to push the medium forward: A desperate clinging to nostalgia in place of new ideas.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the prime example. The film built new characters and new settings, but it failed to elaborate on these new elements and incorporate them as beloved additions to the franchise. Rather, the film used throwaway set pieces to guide the viewer through a couple hours of nostalgia, culminating in one of the most desperate instances of fan pandering in the history of film. (In reference to my earlier point, the film was entirely unnecessary to begin with. However, studios have adopted this mindset where their franchises need a release every single year, hence the Star Wars standalone was born.)

Other films were guilty of this fan pandering as well. The Independence Day remake was wholly unnecessary, along with The Jungle Book, Alice Through the Looking Glass, and many other properties that failed to bring new ideas to the table and instead relied completely on nostalgia to sell tickets. While fans would love to see more of the properties they cherish, these films should have their own ideas, building on the franchise instead of rehashing it. If you're going to make a sequel, get a director with a visionary approach, and take a stab at something new. Failure is a risk, but I would much rather see these innovative failures than a project which took no risks at all.

Adherence To Trends

"Passengers" was one of the year's least original films, widely panned by critics. [Columbia Pictures]
"Passengers" was one of the year's least original films, widely panned by critics. [Columbia Pictures]

While rehashes and nostalgic pandering were serious issues last year, you also saw a certain adherence to trends. This has always been a problem with any year's releases, but it really seemed to come to the fore in 2016. There's nothing wrong with hopping onto a bandwagon or a style that's currently popular, but some films cling so heavily to previous hits that they feel hollow and uninspired. When there are indie filmmakers with original concepts desperately trying to achieve funding, it's always disheartening to see a bandwagon film like Passengers with a budget of $110 million behind it.

While on the subject, I'll use Passengers as an example. A major trend we're seeing right now is movies set in space. There are certain boxes that each of these space movies need to check. Ever since Gravity back in 2013, perhaps even earlier than that, we've seen character-driven space films, often with a small cast. These films tend to culminate in some sort of disastrous problem which the characters must solve, and they always feature big-name actors. While some films, like The Martian or Interstellar, will find new angles with which to tell this story, it's films like Passengers that pool all its resources into a superstar cast and leave you bored and unsatisfied with a rushed screenplay and a trite narrative.

We've also seen other trends represented in 2016, films in which music is central to the plot (La La Land, Sing Street, Sing!), fantasy films with heavy (The BFG, Pete's Dragon, The Jungle Book), and comedies that satirize their own genre (The Nice Guys, Deadpool, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping). While many of these movies were successful for several reasons, 2016 on the whole clearly suffered from buying into popular trends instead of telling original stories.

"Finding Dory" was charming, though perhaps too redolent of its predecessor. [Walt Disney Studios]
"Finding Dory" was charming, though perhaps too redolent of its predecessor. [Walt Disney Studios]

While I may be cynical and disappointed in 2016 as a whole, I should again remind you that there are clear exceptions to these generalizations. Moonlight stands out as one of the most original films I've seen in years, and it rises well above most of its 2016 competition. It's a movie that dares to take risks. It rejects the familiar tropes that studios love to repackage, and it reminds audiences how touching and powerful an original idea can be.

It's easy to forget that while blockbuster releases can grow tiresome and familiar, there are always unconventional filmmakers innovating the medium and challenging our expectations, and these films are just as worthy of our attention. If Hollywood has learned anything from these innovators and acknowledged the outcry against playing it safe, I'm hopeful to see a far more unique and inspiring 2017, with even better years to come.

Which film from 2016 stands out the most? Let me know in the comments below!

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