2016 in Review: Not Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

What makes a movie?

This is a richly theoretical question that’s often been answered by glibly practical guidance. The most common criterion is highly circular: if it’s exhibited in a movie theater, then it’s automatically a movie.

Never mind that there have long been grey areas—misfit media whose very names suggest their dual identities, like ‘made-for-TV movies’ or ‘direct-to-video’ feature films. By dint of their general disreputability, these works were rarely regarded as deep challenges to the established boundaries of cinema. In the 1980s, a number of long works produced for television by established art house directors—Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Edgar Reitz’s Heimat—successfully slant rhymed their way to festival success. Treating them as films, rather than TV miniseries, was an honorific gesture, an acknowledgement that their high artistic ambitions automatically marked them as works of cinema. There was no other vocabulary to describe them.

By the conclusion of 2016, these distinctions were lying in shambles, if they ever mattered at all. To talk about the year in moviegoing necessarily requires engaging with this shift. It wasn’t the first year that disruptive new entrants to the film business—Netflix, Amazon, and assorted VOD proponents—sought to change the way we conceive of movies, but it may well be the year they convinced a substantial portion of the public to go along with them.

The year saw countless think pieces proclaiming that movies had been firmly supplanted as the center of popular American culture. The real energy, the driver of the proverbial water cooler conversations in increasingly anachronistic office parks, was peak TV, or perhaps Pokémon Go. The Los Angeles Times even inaugurated a series devoted to the topic: The Blur. Veteran movie reviewers wrote from a defensive crouch; a great new work, like Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, was first and foremost a refutation of the “death of the movies” narrative.