Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#16

3 Dec

By Tanner Smith

Continuing my countdown of my top 20 favorite films of the decade, here’s a recap: 20) Mad Max: Fury Road, 19) Fruitvale Station, 18) Hugo, 17) Parasite

16) SPOTLIGHT (2015)

I could begin this post four different ways–I could mention how strange it was that writer-director Tom McCarthy’s Oscar-winning “Spotlight” was released within the same year as his turkey “The Cobbler” or that “Spotlight” didn’t make my best-of list for that year (2015) and yet it’s on my best-of list for the decade or that it means something when a film has a bigger impact on you after subsequent viewings…or that it’s the only Best Picture Oscar winner on my list (with all due respect to other winners like “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist,” “Argo,” and “Moonlight,” all of which I really like and admire).

When I first saw “Spotlight” in a theater, I was already in kind of a surly mood with much on my mind. So while I could recognize its first-rate dialogue-driven screenplay, brilliant understated acting, and equally understated directing, its dramatic impact didn’t quite hit me. But because of all of those reasons I could recommend the film, I listed it as an Honorable Mention in my 2015 Review because I did recognize its potential even though there were 10 films I felt I liked better.

It wasn’t until I watched the film again on DVD, alone in my room, and with an open mind that I realized just how excellent “Spotlight” was and that it deserved a high ranking on my best-films-of-2015 list.

Based on actual events, “Spotlight” involves the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team—editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). They’re a small group of journalists who write in-depth investigative articles after spending months conducting an abundant amount of research. In 2001, their new story comes after the Globe’s new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), learns of a lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who represented numerous families alleging their children were sexually abused by Catholic priests. Baron wants the Spotlight team to investigate. Rezendes meets with Garabedian, who reluctantly tells him that there’s much more going on here than meets the eye. The Spotlight team interviews victims and lawyers, and it becomes clear that this isn’t just a 4-13 case number. It’s a widespread conspiracy, with at least 90 cases of scandal and cover-up. The team realizes how risky it is to go after such a powerful institution as the Catholic Church, but they go ahead with the story anyway, spending months to get the full scoop and expose the truth.

So what is it about “Spotlight,” a film about the process of investigative reporting, that moves me deeply? Why is it on my decade-end list? What is there to this film that is mostly directed with a down-to-earth low-key tone, extended amounts of dialogue exchanges, and very little characterization?

Ambition. Drive. Drama. Nerve. Credibility. Passion. To name a few.

It’s one of the best movies about what it means to be a reporter. You see all the hard work that’s put into investigating a story–all the research, all the interviewing, all the pushing of people who will give a reporter the time to talk to them, all the doors being slammed in their faces, all the detective work put into the struggles, all the hours spent into it all, and determination to see it through no matter how long it takes. And it’s a story that’s worth following–these people learn how deep this conspiracy goes, that so many horrible people have used the cloth to manipulate and molest children…and so many other people did nothing about it. It’s also just not enough that a few priests and lawyers are exposed for their wrongdoings (there are already some survivor’s groups that are formed and not enough people are even interested about that). They need to get the full scoop and every possible resource that will prove all guilt. It’s great that these hard-working journalists see it through.

The film is based on a true story. There is a Spotlight team for the Boston Globe and they did print a story that exposed a lot of hidden crime within communities, which caused more victims/survivors to speak out. Tom McCarthy and his crew were able to enlist the assistance of the actual Spotlight team members that are dramatized for this film. In fact, Mark Ruffalo even asked his character’s real-life counterpart (Michael Rezendes) to say his lines for him so he could capture his speech patterns, body language, and other mannerisms. (And in a baseball game scene, you can even see the real Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Walter Robinson in the background)

In “Spotlight,” we don’t see much of the characters outside of work, and so we don’t know them very well either. But while on the job, we still feel their passions for digging for truth, getting the word out, and helping people. With Steven Spielberg’s 2017 critically-praised journalism drama “The Post,” an obvious comparison, the elements are reversed. There is more characterization at work with “The Post,” but what I don’t feel in that film that I do with “Spotlight” is the drive and ethics behind investigative journalism, which made it more fascinating and worth caring about.

The film is carried by McCarthy’s low-key direction, the effectively convincing acting from everyone on-screen, and McCarthy & co-writer Josh Singer’s gripping dialogue structure, and as a result, “Spotlight” feels real and powerful but not in the ways I would expect. It’s easy to make a film like this and insert a lot of melodramatic elements, like a lot of angry screaming matches or even (God forbid) some type of throwaway assassin hired by the community to prevent the Spotlight team from seeing this thing through. But instead, “Spotlight” is powerful because it simply tells the story that needed to be told as it was. Whenever the team interviews victims, their stories are hard to listen to, and even though their words speak to these reporters, all they can do is sit and listen–and you know in their minds they’re thinking about how serious this all is, and they’re probably sweating from their pits that very moment. That’s what I mean–it’s very quiet that way. The only time one of the Spotlight crew truly breaks and loses his temper is late in the film, when Rezendes is convinced that they have all the pieces together and need to print the story right away, but Robinson isn’t going to rush it. “IT’S TIME!” Rezendes snaps. “THEY KNEW! AND THEY LET IT HAPPEN! TO KIDS!!” This scene was criticized for feeling out of place (probably to earn Ruffalo his Oscar nomination), but it doesn’t bother me at all. It feels like that anger was building up inside throughout the whole film and so it seemed inevitable that it would explode in an isolated incident. If Rezendes didn’t say anything, someone else probably would have.

“Spotlight” is a wonderful film, and I wish I had recognized it as such when I first saw it. But now, I can’t deny that it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this decade. The acting, the directing, the writing, the editing, even the subtly solemn music score (by Howard Shore)–everything about it is top-notch. And I applaud it for being a film that reminds us that whenever something is horribly wrong in the world, there’s always going to be a group of people to do something about it.

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