Best Blockbusters of 2016
By Zach Dennis, Andrew Swafford, Jessica Carr, Lydia Creech, and John McAmis.
**NOTE** These films are unranked and in no particular order.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) by Dan Trachtenburg
Though it may be stretching the definition of Blockbuster to include 10 Cloverfield Lane (it was made on a budget of only $15 million), I think it qualifies because of the "Eventiness" of its release.
The trailer dropped as a complete surprise in front of 13 Hours just 8 weeks before opening, and it’s rather remarkable that Producer J.J. Abrams managed to spin a Cloverfield franchise into existence. Even without the title promise of aliens, 10 Cloverfield Lane works as an excellent thriller and mystery. John Goodman’s Harold is goddamn terrifying—scarier than any alien possibly could be—and Mary Elizabeth Winstead rocks as Michelle, who is part Ripley and part John McClane (mostly I’m thinking about crawling around in vents, but also super resourceful).
The close quarters create just as much of an adrenaline rush as any big action set piece this year, and the stakes feel considerably higher. We deserve smarter action films, and 10 Cloverfield Lane more than delivers. - Lydia Creech
Me Before You (2016) by Thea Sharrock
“You only get one life. It's actually your duty to live it as fully as possible.”
I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t shed any tears during Me Before You. To me, that was the whole point of seeing it. I’d prepared myself for a heartbreaking melodrama with a decent plot and attractive leading actors. But, I didn’t expect the film to actually inspire me to do something with my life. Me Before You (read my full review here) transcends most of the recent romance films in that it allows the human element to shine through rather than just focusing on two attractive people supposedly falling in love.
Adapted from Jojo Moyes book of the same name, Me Before You stars Emilia Clarke as Louisa “Lou” Clark, an "adorkable" young woman who loves wearing the quirkiest outfits (i.e see expansive collection of colorful heels). Clarke uses her very expressive eyebrows to show that Louisa very much shares her emotions with the world. Due to financial need, Louisa takes a job as the caregiver of former playboy, now quadriplegic Will Traynor (Sam Claflin). At first, Will is what you would expect him to be. He is angry at the world for his circumstances and spends his time moping around. But, as fate would have it Louisa and Will start spending more time together and eventually they—dare I say it—fall in LOVE. There is some subplot with Louisa and her boyfriend Patrick (Matthew Lewis), but I don’t think it really matters and neither will you considering they break-up without much thought after Will arrives in the picture.
So far, Me Before You probably sounds like a standard Nicholas Sparks book/film plus an English setting and some British actors. But, director Thea Sharrock makes sure that the camera captures the honesty that both characters have to offer. The close-up shot of Louisa and Will’s faces during the wedding “dance” while the rest of the background is spinning and blurred is absolutely beautiful. She does a good job of making the audience feel like Louisa and Will are the only two people in the world—and to them they absolutely are. The romance between Louisa and Will is direct, but very realistic. In the same scene, Louisa says to Will that if he weren’t paralyzed and in the chair that he probably wouldn’t even be with her. He would probably go for the “leggy blondes” and she would be invisible. Will tries to deny it, but ultimately admits yes she was right, but he was an ass then after all. Their romance is merely a product of circumstance and they both seem to acknowledge that.
I honestly think that Me Before You was one of the most refreshing romance films of 2016. I’m so happy to write about a film directed by a woman in the “Blockbusters” category. It makes me hopeful for the future of cinema. - Jessica Carr
Arrival (2016) by Denis Villenueve
The term “blockbuster” is named after a bomb. Invented by the British Air Force during the 1940s attacks on Nazi Germany, blockbuster bombs “were able to bust an entire block.” The term wasn’t adopted in the world of movies until much later--perhaps it didn’t seem fitting in reference to the highest-grossing 1940s hits, which included Bambi and The Red Shoes. But it’s telling that the term is nearly ubiquitous today, as our most popular films have developed a deep violent streak. Taking a look at any post-9/11 box-office rankings (by year or decade) is evidence enough that the term has become practically synonymous with “a movie filled with explosions”--young adult dystopia, superhero epics, the Transformers franchise, and the most violent movie about Jesus ever made all pepper the top charts.
Gone are the Bambi days; industrial militarism is the name of the game.
This is what makes Arrival so special. It is, by all accounts, a true blockbuster--a sprawling sci-fi epic about international military conflict with plenty of big-budget effects and an overwhelming capacity to amaze its audience (I wrote about that in-depth here)--but it is ultimately a film that illustrates the potential of pacifism, and it has an underlying sense of zen-like peace (compare the film’s alien language to the Buddhist enso symbol) that really creeps up on you. By putting a female linguist, rather than a male soldier, in the center of Arrival’s military conflict, the outcome reached is profoundly devoid of destruction and jingoism, and America’s governing powers find ways to communicate with and learn from the film's (literal) illegal aliens rather than lashing out with fear of the Other. This is a methodical film that emphasizes the importance of basic human dialogue in order to resolve conflicts well eventually, rather than resolving them sloppily immediately.
Perhaps the latter approach is why so many other blockbusters feel convoluted and jumbled. Maybe they are communicating something about the hypermodern world we live in, what Douglas Rushkoff would call Present Shock--but it’s also possible they’re just suffering from our collective affliction with the phenomenon. And Rushkoff even admitted that “the most appropriate approach to [modern] pressures...may be to let up on the pedal just a bit” (264). I think Arrival does this beautifully. Director Denis Villeneuve has created a genuine blockbuster that manages to be slow, contemplative, and careful in its implications, trading moment-to-moment thrills for a gradually building cumulative effect of relief and comfort in the face of violence and fear. - Andrew Swafford
The Nice Guys (2016) by Shane Black
I didn’t get along with many blockbusters this year. They were too serious. Too self-important. Too inflated.
All of those qualities were absent from The Nice Guys, the latest film from writer/director Shane Black, a film that has a senseless plot, remarkably stupid and silly characters and set pieces that lack the scale but hone in on the weight.
The group has talked at length about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (see Episode 123) and many others labeled The Nice Guys as a step-down from Black’s debut. I disagree with that opinion and feel like this most recent picture passes the first in almost every respect. It meanders a lot and again, nothing makes too much sense, but dammit if it ain’t a lot of fun.
I’m signing the petition to name Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe as one of my favorite recent comedy duos. Gosling carries some of those qualities that you find in Channing Tatum or George Clooney where you enjoy watching this Hollywood pretty boy play with his image by playing a dummy that makes you laugh while Crowe’s brute stature makes his tirades and slicing glances all the more enjoyable.
I’m disappointed that The Nice Guys didn’t make much of an impact at the box office because what more do you really want in a “blockbuster movie?” - Zach Dennis
Moana (2016) by Ron Clements and John Musker
Walt Disney Animation Studios’s second release of the year, its fifty-sixth animated feature overall, is the latest addition to the studio’s Third Wave. Set in the South Pacific, Moana tells an all-too-familiar story of a royal teenage girl who is cemented to her family’s reigning land, but wants to leave and see the world. It’s directed by the two men who heralded the Disney Renaissance in the 1990s with animated features The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), and Hercules (1997), all which contain roughly the same plot involving a deep desire from the protagonist to either leave their home or return to their birthplace from which they were taken.
Moana, however, does make itself known among the Disney canon with some striking differences: Moana does not have a love interest, she is not technically a princess, and she is voiced by Auli’i Cravalho who is from the region in which the film is set. Moreover, extensive and respectful research was conducted by the studio in order to visualize the environment of the South Pacific — scientists, marine biologists, and even New Zealand filmmakers such as Taika Waititi (who crafted the first draft of the script) are included in the film’s credits. Song lyrics by the incredibly talented Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) and a charismatic Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson make for an enjoyable and heartfelt film that feels just a bit too familiar. - John McAmis
The Magnificent Seven (2016) by Antoine Fuqua
An honest to god Western with beautiful vistas, blue skies, good guys and bad guys. Though pilfering film history for iconic images/moments (burning churches! Saloon with tinkling piano! A Gatling gun!), Antoine Fuqua approached this remake with a lot of respect for the genre and clear direction.
Not only are the set pieces carefully laid out to make sense spatially (SUPER IMPORTANT and a common Cinematary complaint), but Fuqua also beautifully juggles the charming ensemble cast (headed by Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt), giving each actor nice character moments and a satisfying amount of screen time. When this is a remake of a remake of a 3-ish hour samurai film that focused waaaay more on psychology than action, this skillful handling of so many characters is important. It’s kind of magnificent that Fuqua manages to give us both.
More Western blockbusters, please (more Westerns in general). - Lydia Creech
The BFG (2016) by Steven Spielberg
Whizzpopper, human beans, and glumptious are just some of the nonsensical words uttered by none other than the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) or BFG for short. The film is adapted from the Roald Dahl novel of the same name. While this movie managed to rake in money at the box office, it still didn’t seem to be the standout in any 2016 movie conversations I’ve heard.
Still, I think that this movie has its charming moments and deserves some recognition.
A delightful British orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) becomes friends with the BFG after she sees him one night outside of her orphanage. He takes her to his world where he is the only giant that doesn’t eat children. In his world, Sophie and BFG explore, catch dreams, and enjoy each other’s company. I think the best moments in the movie are when Sophie and the BFG talk about dreams. The BFG shows her a tree where all the dreams are stored and the whole scene was quite enchanting.
However, my main issue with the film is that I think there could’ve been more risks taken and themes explored. The third act kind of gets out of hand when you add farting corgis and the Queen’s Army. It really ends up becoming a forgettable distraction for little kids by the end of the film. But if you are looking for a decent children’s movie with some charm then, maybe you won’t mind a few bouts of ridiculousness. - Jessica Carr
The Shallows (2016) by Jaume Collet-Serra
While developing this list, the Cinematary team had a pretty heated debate about what exactly constitutes a “blockbuster.” The main point of contention: is a blockbuster made, or seen? For example--Gods of Egypt was clearly designed to be a Hollywood blockbuster, with a $140 million budget to prove it, but it barely managed to make that money back (worldwide), and certainly didn’t have audiences lining up around the block. On the other hand, there’s The Shallows, which was directed by a cult European filmmaker, produced by the director’s personal studio on a comparatively slim budget of $17 million, but ended up earning seven times that back in ticket sales.
This was a blockbuster seen, but not made. (We never fully resolved this debate, of course, as you can see from the list’s variety.)
The bare-bones approach of The Shallows’s production is exactly what makes it work on screen. This is a lean, mean action thriller that wastes no time and concerns itself primarily with working on a functional level. There’s no real subtext here--it’s a film about a shark attack, and that’s fine. It’s intensely cinematic, perfectly paced, and laser-focused on one particular violent conflict. This is a breath of fresh air in a summer blockbuster season that gave us loads of movies panned for being messy, overlong, and convoluted in their action (such as the aforementioned Gods of Egypt, Suicide Squad, Jason Bourne, or Independence Day: Resurgence, for example).
The clarity of this story is heightened by Flavio Labiano’s bright and crisp digital cinematography (again, standing in bold contrast to the “gritty” grey-browns of most modern blockbusters), as well as the performance of Blake Lively, who according to my fellow Cinematarian Nathan Smith, “somehow masterfully stradles the line between ‘elegant classic movie star’ and ‘all of the white girls you went to school with’.” The trailer even revels in simplicity--it features no dialogue except a distant “help me” coupled with simple shots of the human body recovering from injury in an isolated/threatening environment. Though it may have never been intended as a box office hit, this was the archetypal cinematic thrill of the summer for me. - Andrew Swafford
Pete's Dragon (2016) by David Lowery
Guys, I really think we let this one down.
Like, majorly let it down.
Hell, even I let it down. My review of it was meandering and never touched the deep roots of why Pete’s Dragon works so well — relatable and charming characters, a winning animal sidekick that has a personality, a plot that has large amounts of empathy and care for its characters and an ambiance that begs you to return.
My theory is that it is Disney’s fault. It seems so natural that the Mouse House would spit something out so schmaltzy and family pleasing, and I think we discounted it. What is wrong with us?
Pete’s Dragon is so open, so vulnerable. It wears its heart on its sleeve in the same nature that classic Amblin films like E.T. or The Goonies would. This is middle America — not the informationally exhausting East Coast or the laid back, kale-consuming West Coast. This is people focused on the issues right in front of them and I think that wasn’t something we wanted to praise in 2016. It was too hostile of a stance to take.
The film blankets us in warm comfort and I think we resented that. Nostalgia fueled so much hate recently that we marked the whole lot of it as toxic. Too bad that ate up Pete’s Dragon also. - Zach Dennis
Zootopia (2016) by Byron Howard and Rich Moore
One of two Disney big-budget animated films on our list, the animation studio’s first release of 2016 was a major hit with audiences and critics. Zootopia chronicles the trials and tribulations of living in a large city, where both crime and prejudice are in abundance. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), is a bunny from a small farming community who attempts to realize her dream of moving to Zootopia and becoming a police officer. Her dreams are realized, but due to her species and Prey status, she’s mocked, ridiculed, and discriminated against.
“The small guys,” as Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate) says, have to fight back in a world where they are always disadvantaged. Judy is given the safest job on the force as a meter maid (a big relief for her parents), but goes against Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) to prove herself just as capable as her fellow officers, all of which are Predators. She teams up with Nick Wilde, a fox voiced by Jason Bateman, in order to solve a case of missing mammals.
The film is largely an allegory for our modern socio-political climate, especially here in America, where police brutality, race issues, and discrimination have lead the news headlines and will continue to so do due to a broken, flawed judicial system. The allegory hits home with adults, but the animation, colors, and jokes are for everyone. - John McAmis