Welcome to the first This Month in Movies of 2016! Exciting, right? A New Year; a new chance for Hollywood to right its sins of the past; to embrace with open arms diversity, serious and artistic filmmaking, and intelligent blockbusters with perspective and a sense of humor.
Or to do none of these things.
In theaters across America, January isn’t so much a month of its own as it is December 32–63. Studios don’t release promising new films in January, instead letting the Oscar-nominated fare from November and December fight for straining, snowed-in eyeballs. Even last year’s rare exception and the highest-grossing January release of all time, American Sniper, suggests this; it got a four-theater Oscar-qualifying release in December.
But who needs hits when you’ve got: Oscar noms! Sundance! Zac Efron accidentally smoking crack in a movie that has a sex scene between Robert De Niro and Aubrey Plaza! The winter winds are a-howling, and the word they’re howling is: cinema.
OSCARS SO WHITE, THE REVENANT USED THEM AS SNOW
Much to the chagrin of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, January’s Oscar nominations and nominees were quickly overshadowed by their complete lack of diversity. Since the flap that followed, AMPAS has taken steps to hopefully forestall a similar problem in the future. But with the Academy’s misstep having had some time to sink in, we’re left with a bigger question: What do we really want from the Academy Awards in 2016, anyway?
The Oscars’ lack of recognition for nonwhite talent and films is a symptom of the reality that nonwhite talent and films are grossly underrepresented in the output of Hollywood studios. Deserved as they were, nominations for Michael B. Jordan, Idris Elba, and Ryan Coogler wouldn’t have changed that; these problems are far too ingrained for awards season can fix. Just like the dilemma of how few women there are working behind the camera, the dearth of quality films being released about the nonwhite experience extends deep into the roots of the industry, and it will require an investigation and confrontation that goes as far as those roots. The Oscars just make it all more visible.
But people do care about the Oscars, and the Oscars certainly care about themselves. That’s why Leonardo DiCaprio’s win for The Revenant is such a foregone conclusion that Gold Derby’s odds are in his favor an astounding 1/20. It’s a similar story with Brie Larson’s foregone win for Best Actress, where her odds are 2/13. These are two of the most lopsided races in recent memory, and it’s because the narratives behind them are so strong and immovable that any upset is pure fantasy. The Academy Awards are a manifestation of Hollywood’s ego, and DiCaprio and Larson — who are both, it should be said, terrific in their roles — will be the beneficiaries.
Oddly, though, the Best Picture race is more open than it has been in years. The Big Short, Spotlight, and The Revenant all appear to have a shot at the title, with The Big Short moving ahead after its Producers Guild of America win. All three are very different, idiosyncratic movies, and a win by any one isn’t likely to inspire a raft of imitators, for good reasons: There are few filmmakers lunatic and skillful enough to pull off Adam McKay’s tightrope-walking interrogation of contemporary life; there are few alchemical combinations perfect enough to produce the remarkable consistency of Spotlight; and there are few financiers rich enough to write the checks that enable a Revenant, even if the movie has overachieved at the box office. We’ll see, though: You never can have too many CGI bears in film.
1. The Revenant crawled its way to a comfortable box office.
I just hinted at this, but The Revenant’s success with moviegoers is truly astonishing. A two-and-a-half-hour, $135 million movie about a near-dead movie star pulling himself across the American wilderness doesn’t exactly scream blockbuster, but here we are, with The Revenant having made back its budget domestically and added another $142 million overseas. The movie should at least break even.
It helps that the film is good: It has an 83 percent Tomatometer and a field-leading 12 Oscar nominations to show for the death march that was its production. But most good films, even Oscar-nominated good films, don’t make $280 million worldwide. So why is The Revenant so successful? Possibly the credit should go to Leo, who has now steered five unconventional films in the last six years — Shutter Island, Inception, The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Revenant — to superb global receipts. And possibly, the credit should go to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s uncompromising embrace of primal themes and outright spectacle, both concepts that play well and hold water across borders and demographics. Either way, regardless of whether Revenant takes Best Picture, it’s already a triumph for both men, Tom Hardy’s scalp, and the correct pronunciation of Domhnall Gleeson’s name. (Hint: It rhymes with tonal.)
2. Ride Along and Kung Fu Panda made the best of it.
With very few releases of note coming in January, Ice Cube and Kevin Hart’s buddy-cop franchise, Ride Along, staked out serious territory. Two years ago, the first installment set the record for the best-ever opening in January, a record that would last only until the next January, when American Sniper made more than double. This month, the second installment, Ride Along 2, matched the first’s less-then-stellar reviews but couldn’t quite replicate its opening. Its $35 million first weekend was still good for the ninth-best January bow ever, though. And last weekend’s Kung Fu Panda 3 was a similar success story, albeit with more critical support: It opened to $41.3 million, just barely falling short of the first Ride Along’s former record and shattering the mark for an animated film starting out in January.
While neither performance exactly set the world on fire, they do reinforce the idea that you can launch a solid performer in any month on the calendar now, particularly if it's facing little competition or has a guaranteed hook — say, kung-fu pandas, or Kevin Hart. Both were also significant for what they meant to those two institutions: With its terrific opening overseas, the Kung Fu Panda franchise has a good shot at topping $2 billion worldwide by the time this one leaves theaters, and Hart has now headlined six straight $20 million–plus openers.
I'll reiterate here that this was a very good month for bears.
3. Nate Parker became a major filmmaker in the span of one screening.
As it does every year, Sundance offered up a number of highlights, from the outstanding return of Kenneth Lonergan to Daniel Radcliffe’s postmortem flatulence and enormous erection. But by far the biggest event of this year’s festival was the premiere of The Birth of a Nation, the chronicle of Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt written, directed, produced by, and starring Nate Parker, previously best known for his performance in Beyond the Lights. Parker’s been working on The Birth of a Nation for seven years, and his efforts paid off: The movie swept Sundance’s Jury and Audience awards, was snapped up by Fox Searchlight for a festival-record $17.5 million, and is already being talked about as a favorite at the 2017 Oscars. It’s rare that a major American filmmaker is revealed in the span of one screening, but that’s what happened in Park City, and learning Parker’s name now will put you ahead of the game — once The Birth of a Nation hits theaters, it’ll be hard to avoid.
1. Dirty Grandpa came into existence.
Look: Not all movies have to be The Godfather, and not all jobs have to be purely For the Sake of Art. But it’s hard not to be bummed out by Dirty Grandpa, an installment in the canon of Late De Niro that critics have near-unanimously declared to be an embarrassment. Of course, there are a lot of bad movies, and there are a lot of unfunny comedies. It just so happens that this one features one of the greatest actors of all time, a 72-year-old man, trying to have sex with college girls. And while it hasn’t been a total failure at the box office, it’s certainly not earning enough to make all of this worthwhile. Granted, nothing can sully the great work that De Niro has done. But it would be nice to see him find some worthy material again. Not required. Not essential. Nice.
2. The 5th Wave couldn’t fill the YA vacuum.
We’ve recently entered a strange new age. 2016 will be the first year since 2001 in which there isn’t a Harry Potter, Twilight, or Hunger Games movie on the horizon. That’s 15 years — hardly an insignificant amount of time in the film world. Without those three franchises in play, there would appear to be a tremendous, money-filled void in the valuable young-adult crossover market, but so far, attempts to tap into it — Divergent, The Maze Runner — haven’t sniffed those magical, vampirical, kid-killing heights. The latest derby entry, the Chloë Grace Moretz–starring The 5th Wave, did even worse. Its $10 million opening disappointed, and it may have been low enough to head off the planned sequels to follow. The saving grace is that, like many YA adaptations, it’s doing well overseas, and with a budget of only $38 million, the play going forward could be just to focus on that international market. Perhaps the U.S. is only for franchises that can really afford to go all in.
3. Michael Bay continued to struggle outside of the Transformers franchise.
The name 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi makes Michael Bay’s new movie sound like one of those books that you find in the bargain bin of a Barnes and Noble, written by some occasional Fox News contributor who hosts a popular conservative talk show. That didn’t do it any favors at the box office, where it has underachieved to the tune of $42.9 million after three weeks. You have to go all the way back to 2003 to find the last time Michael Bay made a movie outside of the Transformers franchise that grossed more than $50 million domestically. Granted, that’s only three movies — The Island, Pain and Gain, and 13 Hours — and the Transformers series has earned nearly $4 billion worldwide. But it speaks to a certain eccentricity in the subject matter Bay gravitates to outside of his bread and butter.
The surprising thing about his three originals isn’t that they didn’t make more money. It’s that each was so clearly not going to make a ton of money, mostly based on their hard-to-sell concepts: organ-harvesting clone thriller; brutal true-life meathead caper; patriot-baiting actioner. For some reason, Bay’s original work isn’t reaching its intended audience. Whether he cares or not, considering all that Transformers money, is a different question altogether.
Again: Really? Not even a bear could have saved this movie.