2016 wasn’t all bad: a look at the year in entertainment

Think you’d rather forget 2016 altogether? These ten media stories from the past year might change your mind.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land, 2016. Summit Entertainment LLC | MoviestillsDB

For many of us, 2016 was a year we’d rather forget. From Aleppo to Brexit, from terror attacks to the election to exploding phones, the year fed us a steady dose of stress and dread, with only a bit of angst to spice things up.

But what do Americans do when troubles hit? We go to the movies, of course. Or listen to music or watch television or, heck, even pick up a phone and play a game. Entertainment has always been a respite, and 2016 was no exception. Indeed, in this year of gloom and doom, Hollywood treated us to a fair amount of happy endings. And even when the stories themselves weren’t so hot, we at least were able to learn a thing or two from them.

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So with that preamble out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the biggest, and in many cases best, entertainment stories from 2016.

#OscarsSoDiverse?

Just a scant 10 months go, the Oscars were awash in yet another #OscarsSoWhite controversy, with not a single person of color nominated in any of the big acting categories. That won’t happen this year. While nominees for the 2017 Academy Awards haven’t been selected yet, you can bet your bottom dollar that there’ll be a far more diverse body of contenders. Such movies as Moonlight, Lion, Loving, Fences and Hidden Figures boast plenty of color in their casting, and all have earned scads of accolades on the way to awards season. I’ve seen ‘em all. The praise for these films is richly deserved.

Shaming the shamers

Hollywood—like most of America—can be pretty shallow. I don’t know if we’ll ever see a day when actresses are allowed to put on a few pounds or change their look or, heaven forbid, age gracefully without some tabloid or gossip site making a snarky comment or two. But in 2016, a few women fought back. In The Huffington Post, actress Renee Zellweger took on critics who alleged she’d undergone cosmetic surgery. “Ubiquitous online and news source repetition of humiliating tabloid stories, mean-spirited judgments and false information is not harmless,” she wrote. Superstar Jennifer Aniston wrote her own essay for The Huffington Post: “We use celebrity ‘news’ to perpetuate this dehumanizing view of females.” This won’t be the last we hear of this issue, of course. But thanks to some prominent entertainers willing to speak out, it is, at least, an issue.

Gaming takes us outside

We all know the stereotype of the video game enthusiast. He (and it’s always a “he”) sits in a dark basement, barely moving as he slays pixelated foes. He interacts with the outside world only dimly and briefly. But this summer, a game called Pokémon Go changed all that. Gamers were encouraged to step outside their homes and for imaginary creatures in their real-world neighborhoods, via their smartphones. Granted, the game wasn’t all ice cream and syrup: Stories surfaced of Pokémon hunters accidentally stepping into busy streets in search of that elusive Pikachu. And yet for the first time, a game was actively encouraging its users to get off the couch, breathe some fresh air and walk. And millions of people did just that. Oh, and did I mention that 63 percent of these gamers were women?

MORE TO READ: Why I’m letting my kids play Pokemon GO (if they follow 6 rules)

Sports brings us together

The Olympics served up its share of controversy, as it always does. Just writing the name Ryan Lochte—one of four American swimmers who vandalized a gas station and tried to cover it up by saying they’d been robbed at gunpoint—makes me cringe a little. But the truly enduring Olympic moments were good ones: Usain Bolt flashing his famous grin as he cruised to another gold medal. The buoyant Simone Biles and the rest of her U.S. gymnastics squad bounding to their own moments of Olympic glory, giggling all the way.

And let’s not forget the heartwarming story of runners Nikki Hamblin (New Zealand) and Abbey D’Agostino (U.S.A.), who got tangled up during a 5,000-meter race and fell. Instead of blaming one another for the fall, they helped each other finish. D’Agostino touched Hamblin on the shoulder and said, “Get up. We have to finish this.” Then when D’Agostino realized she was seriously hurt, Hamblin encouraged her on. And when they both crossed the finish line—D’Agostino running despite completely tearing her right anterior crucial ligament—they hugged. “When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years’ time, that’s my story,” Hamblin later said. “That girl shaking my shoulder, (saying) ‘come on, get up.”

MORE TO READ: As we bid the Olympics adieu, 3 touching moments to take with us (VIDEO)

Holding out for some heroes

The Olympics weren’t the only place we could find people to cheer for. At a time when our country seemed to sorely need a hero or two, our movie theaters were full of them. From Captain America: Civil War to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to Doctor Strange, there were plenty of gifted do-gooders on screen, and judging by their box office grosses, we loved them all. Granted, not all these heroes were perfectly heroic. Batman v Superman gave us a very Dark Knight, more a violent vigilante than caped crusader. Cap and Iron Man had their own difficulties in Civil War. The year even gave us a complex collection of villains doing some good work for a change (Suicide Squad) and, in Deadpool, a profane, violent antihero. But behind all these murky stories lurked one sterling truth: There are things in this world worth fighting for—indeed, worth sacrificing our lives for. And that’s a lesson worth holding onto..

Jesus goes to Hollywood

The silver screen was also filled with depictions of the world’s ultimate hero, too—Jesus Christ Himself. We saw Him as a little boy in The Young Messiah, as a guy just beginning His ministry in Last Days in the Desert, a grown, grace-filled man in the Ben-Hur remake and as the subject of a compelling sword-and-sandals mystery in Risen. Taken together, these films suggest an encouraging trajectory for Christian filmmaking: newfound confidence by religious filmmakers to take more narrative chances, and a newfound willingness by secular ones to explore themes of faith. All these films are challenging and, in some cases, potentially discomforting. But each gives us an opportunity to think about our Savior in new and (I think) potentially positive ways. And if Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Silence follows Shūsaku Endō’s powerful novel, Jesus will have something to say in that movie, as well.

Family movies were all the rage

Don’t look now, but Disney kind of took over the box office this year. Six of the year’s top 10 movies came from the Mouse House, including four of the top six (No. 1 Finding Dory, No. 2 Captain America: Civil War, No. 4 The Jungle Book and No. 6 Zootopia). This doesn’t just confirm that Disney knows how to make a crowd-pleasing popcorn muncher. No, the story goes deeper than that. Disney succeeded this year because it’s the world’s foremost maker of family movies—movies that parents and kids (depending on ages and inclination) can all watch and enjoy together. Most of the year’s non-Disney bona fide blockbusters had a family draw, too. Six of the year’s 20 highest-grossing films were animated. Even more remarkable: 19 of those top 20 films were rated either PG or PG-13 (the sole outlier: Deadpool). Pretty incredible, considering that more than half of all movies made in a given year are typically rated R.

Families were, too

Let’s not kid ourselves. The breakup of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt—a couple collectively known in the tabloids as “Brangelina”—was hardly a feel-good story. Indeed, for their six children, it was surely a tragedy. But perhaps that’s the point. We live in a society where divorce is often seen as a matter of course. Statistically, half of all couples will eventually split. Divorce is normal—even a punchline. “I am a maaahvelous housekeeper,” said the late Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was married eight times. “Every time I leave a man I keep his house.” But in the case of Jolie and Pitt, the separation was no laughing matter. We saw this couple in happier times. We followed their brood of adorable children, many of whom were adopted from countries in deep crisis. The cautionary story of Brangelina reminded us that divorce takes a huge toll on those caught up in its maelstrom—especially its tiniest victims.

Finding the future in our past

From the retro-musical charm of Oscar fave La La Land to the new, nostalgia-soaked Star Wars movies to Netflix’s loving salute to the 1980s in Stranger Things, 2016 was a year when everything old was new again. Some would argue that this trend is more an illustration of Hollywood’s lack of new ideas than anything positive. And indeed, this wave of nostalgia sometimes took dark turns into terribleness. (If only we could blot out the very memory of the second season of Netflix’s Fuller House.) But for a sentimental guy like me, there’s something encouraging about revisiting the past to find hope for the future—to take lessons from our parents and grandparents (and their favorite bits of entertainment) and use them to, if not solve today’s problems, at least alleviate them for a time.

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Parting is just sweet sorrow

We lost a great many entertainment luminaries this year, and their passing is hardly reason to celebrate. And yet, those terrible, sometimes tragic moments allow us to reflect on their lives and careers and take stock in what they meant to us societally, and to us personally. I’ll never forget dancing to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” at the high school prom or listening quietly to David Bowie’s “Major Tom” in my dorm room. I’ll always remember Alan Rickman’s sinister Hans in Die Hard and Snape’s malevolent complexity in the Harry Potter movies. I’m eternally grateful to Carrie Fisher for not just her work in the Star Wars saga, but her wit and honesty off the screen.

And even as we mourn the passing of these luminaries, we can be grateful that in a way, their work allows them to live on. If we miss them—and we will—we can fire up Pandora or pop a movie into the Blu-Ray player and see them as we remember them. They will always be with us as long as we want them to be, singing, dancing, acting. And they’ll help us forget our troubles for a time … just as entertainers always have.

Paul Asay
Paul Asay

Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and Beliefnet.com. He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

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