It requires constant reiteration, but it hold especially true this year: The highest-grossing films of any given year are rarely also the best. Yes, many great films can earn huge amounts of money, but in a marketplace where giant effects-based “event” pictures and super-friendly family fare are still the highest earners, one is unlikely to encounter much in the way of aesthetic daring, challenge, or anything else beyond bland adolescent thrill. The Venn diagram between critics’ Top 10 lists and any given year’s Top 10 grossers will prove to have – time and again – very little overlap.
2016 was a great year for blockbusters in terms of numbers, but a bad year for blockbusters in terms of quality. Many mainstream moviegoers have openly noticed that many of the high-profile, big-budget studio releases have been of, shall we say, less-than-stellar quality. Built-in audiences for superhero and Star Wars films are seeing many of these films hastily and automatically, even if they don’t really like them; I have talked to many people who dislike Rogue One, but still watched it three times in its opening weekend. This proves that many audiences are more keen on brand loyalty than we may have assumed. A Star Wars fan needs to pay money to display their devotion, it seems, and simply accept that some of these films (indeed, most of them) aren’t great.
2016 was a year wherein giant, super-hyped studio product franchises somehow became super-concentrated. These sorts of long-form franchise movies have been regularly churned out of the Hollywood machine for a decade now, of course, but the volume has become so overwhelming that we got several bad ones in a row.
As such, the list below – with grosses culled from the valuable Box Office Mojo – represents a very middle-of-the-road portrait of what Hollywood did this year. A lot of people saw these films, but none were worthy of much passion. Nonetheless, let’s take a look at them, and rank them in terms of quality. Of the biggest blockbusters of 2016, which ones were the actual best?
10. Suicide Squad (Box Office #9, $325,100,054)
Although helmed by a known filmmaker with a unique voice – David Ayer of End of Watch and Fury fame – Suicide Squad feels like a team of studio marketing suits made it. It is paced like a TV commercial (indeed, the studio hired the makers of the film’s trailers to edit the actual film), and features some of the sloppiest storytelling and bad characterization one is likely to encounter from a high-profile release. It was a chore to sit through.
9. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Box Office #8, $330,360,194)
Suicide Squad wasn’t, however, as much of a chore as the over-long, dour, hopeless, ultra-violent, ultra-convoluted Batman v. Superman, a superhero mash-up film wherein every scene is a tragic climax. I understand that audiences seem to crave deeply dramatic stories from their superheroes now – actual fun seems to be short supply within the genre – but Zack Snyder’s overblown melodrama is a tangle. It only surpasses Suicide Squad by a hair, as at least it’s constructed more like a real movie, and less like a commercial.
8. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Box Office #2, $447,170,302)
Weak characterization, boring action plotting, a half-told story, and a thick viscous layer of foamy fan service choked the latest in the unending litany of Star Wars. Longtime ultra-devoted fans of the franchise seemed to appreciate a film made of references and callbacks – many even called it the best Star Wars film since 1980 (which is, if we’re honest, not much of a feat) – but those of us looking for something striking or original or even above average walked away disappointed.
7. The Jungle Book (Box Office #5, $364,001,123)
Jon Favreau has a good eye when it comes to visually interesting and ambitious blockbuster entertainments, while still having a keen ear for good dialogue and rich characters; there’s a reason his 2008 film Iron Man became the aesthetic and tonal template for the entire Avengers series. With his remake of The Jungle Book, Favreau constructed an entire world with state-of-the-art digital effects, placing a live-action Mowgli in the middle. The film is more visually stunning than moving or creative, but it’s watchable.
6. The Secret Life of Pets (Box Office #4, $368,384,330)
Those of us who grew up reading newspaper funnies instant recognized the funny-talking-animal genre (any strip from Garfield to Fred Basset provided the template), but the genre got a new shot in the arm from the studio that made Minions, and audiences got a pretty-funny, not-too-bad family flick about funny talking dogs. A notable highlight: When the two lead dogs get lost in a sausage factory, and enter a hallucinatory wonderland of anthropomorphic meat.
5. Doctor Strange (Box Office #10, $230,436,806)
The 14th film in the Avengers series provided a good deal of visual innovation in the form of swirling psychedelic magical dimension portals and the like, but the story, as many immediately noticed, was disconcertingly similar to many other superhero films of recent years. It’s a decent enough film, but it does color the series it belongs to. How many times can audiences stand to see the same origin story applied to new characters? It’s average. Not hateable. Just plain.
4. Captain America: Civil War (Box Office #3, $408,084,349)
The 13th film in the Avengers series gained major Brownie points in the fan community by featuring the best little-boy, who-would-win-in-a-fight scenario the series has seen yet. Divided by ethos – Captain America believes superheroes should subscribe to a small-government conservatism while Iron Man is a big-government democrat – two camps of superheroes divide and fight. The story beyond that is way, way too convoluted and there are too many characters, but for that one fight, the genre itself seems to sing.
3. Finding Dory (Box Office #1, $486,295,561)
Pixar seems to have fallen from a vaunted location in the popular consciousness – where they provided deep emotions and clever ideas – into a pit of sequels and dwindling drama. Yes, we are still occasionally treated to Inside Out, but we also have to face the likes of Finding Dory, a film that revisits the characters from Finding Nemo. Pixar, however, turns something that is a somewhat uninspired kiddie adventure into a metaphor for mental illness and living within the autism spectrum. It functions better as a metaphor than as a film, and it’s hardly Pixar’s best work, but it’s serviceable.
2. Zootopia (Box Office #7, $341,268,248)
Like The Secret Life of Pets, Disney’s Zootopia attempts to get a lot of creative traction from a genre/style – in this case, anthropomorphic animals – that has been the stock-in-trade of animation since its inception. The result, however, proved to be a clever, underhanded comment on modern race relations, and racism in society. Predators are feared in Zootopia, even though they are just as well-behaved as the prey. That doesn’t stop a bunny cop from racially profiling a fox, only to team up with him and uncover a plot to oust predators from society. It feels timely this year.
1. Deadpool (Box Office #6, $363,070,709)
The superhero genre has, over the course of the last decade, settled into something predictable, bland, and even-dare I say – boring. The filmmakers behind Marvel films clearly have no intention of exploding or exploring their characters. They just want to have them do the usual superhero stuff time and time again. So when something even remotely striking – not to mention even a little bit genuinely shocking – comes along, it is to be celebrated. Deadpool is an R-rated comedy full of dirty sex, brutal violence, and a puckish dismissal of all superhero seriousness. It’s not revolutionary, but seeing a film that takes the piss out of the superhero genre – from within, no less – is a breath of fresh air.
Top Image: Pixar / LucasFilm / Warner Bros.
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.