Saturday, November 28, 2015

Spotlight Shines Bright, but Oscar Frontrunner?

After stirring up a lot of talk at Telluride and TIFF in September, most markets finally got to set eyes on Tom McCarthy's Spotlight. Gripe as I may about sluggish release schedules, this one was worth the wait.
The journalistic docudrama about the Boston Globe's Pulitzer-winning investigation of pedophilia, corruption and complicity within the Catholic Church is dense, and in the best way. McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer's screenplay packs a lot of content into a swift, focused procedural. It requires attention, and rewards attention.

Granted, talking heads aren't always easy to make jump off the screen, but the cast is greater than the sum of their considerable parts. This is marvelous group acting, with each performer carving out distinctive personalities for a roster of characters who could have become homogenized. The SAG Ensemble prize may be sewn up, and if pundits are to be believed, perhaps the Best Picture Oscar?...

I'm not so sure.

Don't get me wrong, Spotlight would be a worthy winner. McCarthy is a fine dramatist who has long favoured intelligent, impeccably observed human interaction over sensationalism. But whether or not that can translate into Hollywood's top prize is what I question. What's the last Best Picture winner that was this talkative? Perhaps McCarthy will get his due in Best Original Screenplay, but the whole movie may end up being more of a media darling (and it's not hard to see why) than an industry favourite.

Other viewings this week included a pair of docs that each terrify and enrage in their own way: Matthew Heineman's Cartel Land, and a second look at The Hunting Ground (which aired on CNN to television audiences).
The former is a first-hand look at armed civilian groups (on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border) taking the fight against ruthless drug cartels into their own hands at the failure of their governments. It's shot with immediacy and features more than its share of captivating footage, not the least of which is a chilling interview with masked meth-cookers speaking plainly about how this cycle of drug production and trafficking is simply never going to stop.

Indeed, the doc paints a bleak portrait of crime culture so institutionalized and corrupt that ordinary people have no choice but to take up arms themselves, but to what end? It does end up spinning its wheels here and there -- at times feeling like a pair of short docs spliced into one -- but the assembly is top-notch. It would make a decent double-feature with the similarly themed Sicario.
As for The Hunting Ground, it would make an apt companion piece to the directors' own Oscar-nominated doc The Invisible War, which chronicled the systematic cover-up of sexual assaults in the military. This time Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering turn the camera on U.S. colleges and universities, where campus rape has run rampant and unchecked for decades.

The blood-boiling expose of schools' inaction in the face of staggering rape reports follows the same formal pattern of The Invisible War, nimbly jumping between emotional first-person testimonies and a more hopeful narrative of political activism. The primary subjects are rape survivors Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, whose nation-spanning campaign to support victims and hold institutions accountable has been picking up steam over the last several years.

These glimmers of inspiration are practically a necessity to temper the pageant of horror stories recounted by the interviewees. The sheer number and similarity of their nightmarish struggles with law enforcement and school administrators becomes numbing to a degree, but that's very much the point, and Dick handles it with as much sensitivity and effectiveness as in his previous feature.

It's worth noting that while Best Picture hopefuls continue their agonizingly slow crawl out into wider markets, Best Documentary is a race that's heating up. Nominations from the PGA, Cinema Eye Honors, and International Documentary Association have been announced in recent weeks. Both The Hunting Ground and Cartel Land are among the titles that have been mentioned, but the only two to be cited by all three groups so far are Asif Kapadia's Amy and Josh Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence (follow-up to his Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing).

We can expect these names to receive plenty of critical high-fives throughout December, although one never knows who the Academy's unpredictable doc branch is going to leave hanging.

No comments:

Post a Comment