Regardless of your political persuasion, 2016 was a year of tumult and uncertainty. At least the movies gave us an occasional break from the headlines. Feel-good animated films triumphed at the box office this year, with Finding Dory at No. 1, while superheroes found a darker groove (the hard-R comedy Deadpool, the villain-driven Suicide Squad) and familiar franchises — Harry Potter, Star Wars — put down new roots. Before we toast the arrival of 2017, here’s a list of the biggest box-office winners and losers of 2016.
Related: The 50 Best Movies of 2016
WINNER: The Wonderful World of Disney
Mickey Mouse had a good year. Five of the studio’s divisions (Disney, Marvel Studios, Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation, and Lucasfilm) managed to crack 2016’s list of highest-grossing films, with Finding Dory at No. 1 with $486 million, Captain America: Civil War at No. 2 with $408 million, and The Jungle Book, Deadpool, Doctor Strange, Moana, and Rogue One all delivering huge numbers. Globally, Walt’s triumph was even bigger: In December, Disney became the first studio ever to reach $7 billion at the worldwide box office in a single year.
Watch the Finding Dory cast answer the question: “What would Dory do?”
WINNER: La La Land
This Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone musical, which began generating Best Picture buzz at film festivals this fall, is off to a swinging start: On its limited opening weekend in December, the movie scored the year’s best per-theater average. (The film goes wide on Christmas Day.)
LOSER: Video- game movies
This year’s game-inspired films Warcraft and Ratchet & Clank both lost at the box office, as did the first-person-shooter-esque action film Hardcore Henry. (It’s too early to tell for December’s Assassin’s Creed, but the reviews for the highly anticipated adaptation have not been kind.) Only The Angry Birds Movie escaped the game-to-film curse in 2016 … but that won’t stop Hollywood, which has more than 50 video game films currently in development. One reason for the continued push: These films — Warcraft being a prime example — do much better overseas.
WINNER: Expanded universes
Can a beloved franchise thrive without the audience’s favorite characters? This year, Warner Bros. and Lucasfilm both tested the waters, introducing new casts for the standalone Star Wars film Rogue One and the Potterverse spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Judging from the numbers ($172 million and $208 million, respectively, and counting), audiences are happy to explore new corners of their favorite fantasy worlds, with or without Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter to show them the way.
LOSER: Will Smith
Less than a decade ago, Will Smith was single-handedly steering I Am Legend and Hancock over the $200 million mark. Now he’s struggling to get his mojo back. Though Suicide Squad did well, his performance as Deadshot was lost in the noise of negative reviews — and his big awards-season star vehicle Collateral Beauty, which received some of the year’s worst reviews, has made only $8 million so far. At least he passed on this summer’s Independence Day sequel, which took a nosedive without him.
WINNER: Original animation
More than ever, major studios are reluctant to put their money into films that aren’t based on existing brands or franchises … unless those films are animated. Original animated films thrived this year, including The Secret Life of Pets ($368 million), Zootopia ($341 million), Moana ($165 million), and the adults-only Sausage Party, which grossed $97 million on a $19 million budget. Unfortunately, originality wasn’t a guaranteed formula for success: The stop-motion film Kubo and the Two Strings made only $48 million despite glowing reviews.
LOSER: Long-awaited sequels
Hollywood has never been guilty of underestimating nostalgia. Remember the good old days of The Da Vinci Code? How about Bridget Jones’s Diary or Zoolander? Don’t you want to know what those characters are up to now? As it happens, audiences didn’t: Inferno made just $34 million, Zoolander 2 made $28 million, and Bridget Jones’s Baby made $24 million. The 10-years-in-the-making Independence Day: Resurgence also struggled, failing to recoup with $103 million. The exception may be Matt Damon’s triumphant return to the title role of Jason Bourne ($162 million) — but keep in mind that the last Bourne movie was in 2012, so the series didn’t have a chance to stagnate.
The superhero genre has dipped its toe into dark waters before, but Deadpool broke the mold with a violent, hard-R action comedy that grossed $363 million in the sleepy month of February. Its success has shaken up the industry: At least one 2017 superhero film is getting an R rating and a genre shake-up (the low-fi Wolverine drama Logan). More will surely follow.
Watch Deadpool nail this fake interview:
WINNER: Moms behaving badly
Score one for the female-driven ensemble comedy Bad Moms, which beat out big-budget competition to become one of the year’s top earners with $113 million. The surprise summer hit also marked the arrival of STX, an entertainment company founded in 2014, as a major box-office player.
LOSER: Ancient epics
Somehow, studios still have hopes for another Gladiator or 300, but 2016 should cool the sword-and-sandal fever: Both Gods of Egypt ($31 million) and Ben-Hur ($26 million) laid waste to their nine-figure budgets.
WINNER: Word-of-mouth horror
Horror fans are famously loyal to their genre, and some of the year’s scariest movies thrived on audience-generated buzz. Low-budget indie flicks like The Witch ($25 million), Lights Out ($67 million), and the tiny Green Room ($3 million) slayed in limited release, while wider releases like Don’t Breathe ($89 million) and 10 Cloverfield Lane ($71 million) had audiences lining up to discuss all the shocking twists with friends.
LOSER: Robert Zemeckis
The director of such beloved fare as Back to the Future and Cast Away tried his hand at a period wartime romance this year, but Allied — despite a juicy-but-false rumor about an affair between stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard — died a slow death at the holiday box office, grossing $38 million. That’s the second disappointment in a row for Zemeckis, who followed 2012’s modest hit Flight with 2015’s major flop The Walk.
WINNER: Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson
Between Hart’s impeccable comic timing, Johnson’s muscular charisma, and their hilarious height difference, these box-office overachievers easily made a hit out of Central Intelligence ($127 million). What’s really impressive is that both went two for two this year: Hart also scored with Ride Along 2 ($90 million), and the Rock with Moana ($162 million). It’s a savvy move on both their parts to reunite in 2017’s Jumanji.
LOSER: Old Hollywood
There are so many juicy stories to be told about Hollywood’s golden age, but that era of incomparable glamor and corruption just doesn’t seem to excite audiences. Moviegoers didn’t show for the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! or Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply, although both opened with star wattage and critical buzz (the former more than the latter). La Land Land is faring better by re-creating that old-Hollywood feel in a contemporary story.
“The thinking person’s alien invasion film” is a tough sell. Nevertheless, this acclaimed sci-fi drama was a sleeper hit, generating $87 million with Amy Adams’s moving lead performance, Denis Villeneuve’s stunning direction, truly unique aliens, and a story that kept audiences talking long after the closing credits.
Watch Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner talk about the end of Arrival:
WINNER: Clint Eastwood
After a string of flops (Invictus, Hereafter, J. Edgar, Jersey Boys), the Man With No Name got back on the horse with his 2014 blockbuster American Sniper. The director’s victory lap continued this year, with his Tom Hanks-starring drama Sully bringing in a cool $124 million.
LOSER: Forced whimsy
How else to categorize the family films that tried too hard to be delightful flights of dark fantasy and ended up falling on their computer-animated faces? The BFG, Pete’s Dragon, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children all performed below expectations, while character-driven children’s fare like Zootopia flourished.
WINNER: Hell or High Water
Amid the late-summer special-effects blowouts, this low-key Texas crime story (starring a terrific-as-ever Jeff Bridges) generated a healthy $27 million in limited release.
LOSER: High-frame-rate cinema
Filmmakers keep trying to make it happen, but so far, high frame rates are more of a turn-off than a selling point. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films succeeded in spite of their high-def-soap-opera look, but this year’s Ang Lee dud Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was pilloried by critics for its distracting 120 FPS gimmick, and moviegoers weren’t interested in looking past it.
WINNER: The Lobster
This one gets a shout-out because it’s so unexpected: Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s surrealist black comedy, about a dystopian world in which nonmarried people are either transformed into animals or hunted for sport, was a summer hit at the indie box office ($9 million). It’s small but hopeful evidence that movie audiences will turn up for something they haven’t seen before.
Watch the trailer for The Lobster: