It’s been a number of years since I started scheduling myself for the second half of the Toronto International Film Festival, rather than the first few days. I’m not someone who either is assigned to or feels the necessity to be the first person to see a film and register my opinion.
As a result, by the time I get here and start seeing films, others have already rushed to judgment. I counted no fewer than a half-dozen films being touted by different bloggers as “the best film of the year” before I even arrived in Canada. A couple of those turned out to be far less impressive than the hype would have you believe.
But, during my final day at TIFF today, I saw what may, in fact, be the best film of the year. While I’ve seen films that will definitely make my list of favorites for 2015, “Spotlight” was the one that gave me that tingle: that giddy feeling that I was seeing something important, something special, something that will be hard to top before year’s end.
Directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy, the film is a journalistic thriller on a par with “All the President’s Men.” Like this year’s “Truth,” it looks at journalists battling to get at the crux of a story. But, unlike that film about Dan Rather and the George W. Bush-National Guard story (in which the journalists were punished for their efforts), this one features reporters doing what they do best: exposing malfeasance and bringing the malefactors into the light.
In this case, the protagonists are an investigative group known as the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe. Set in 2001, the film follows these reporters (led by Michael Keaton and including Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James) as they track down the pedophilia scandal kept under wraps for decades by the Boston Archdiocese. The deeper they dig, the harder the Catholic Church pushes back – in Boston, a town the Church practically owns.
McCarthy masterfully handles a sprawling tale with a strong ensemble cast (which also includes John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup, among others). Each of the reporters follows leads that take them closer and closer to what they’re seeking: proof that the Archdiocese knew about and sheltered pedophile priests, moving them from parish to parish instead of defrocking them and making them pay for their crimes. The reporters battle the Church’s long arm – but also have to struggle with their own urge to rush to print, rather than waiting until they have the entire sordid story nailed down.
In an era when newspapers are dying on the vine, outstripped by the Internet and defanged by corporate owners whose only concern is the bottom line, it’s a heartening tale, though the story they uncover is sickening. Sunshine, as they say, is the best disinfectant – and these reporters are trying to open the blinds on a church full of vampires.
As it happened, Thursday was yet another day where the three films I saw all were rooted in true stories. The second film, “Our Brand is Crisis,” is based on a 2006 documentary about American political consultants (led by James Carville) helping a former president of Bolivia run for a new term.
The film is certainly the most watchable and coherent film from overrated critical favorite David Gordon Green. Working from a fictionalized script by Peter Straughan, it’s more Hollywood than docu-drama, casting Sandra Bullock as a disgraced political consultant known as “Calamity Jane,” for the past meltdowns that led her to leave the game.
She’s persuaded to give it another try in Bolivia, working for the former president (Joaquim de Almeida). She’s part of a team of Americans that features types (the clueless image consultant played by Scott McNairy, for example) rather than characters – and that includes Jane herself. Green gives Bullock plenty of rope to do her snide hard-ass shtick, though she never hangs herself with it. But she comes close.
While this film makes some of the same points as Rachel Boynton’s documentary, it’s more interested in jokey moments of physical slapstick and other bad behavior. The script also tends to focus on the rivalry between Jane and a consultant for the frontrunner, played by Billy Bob Thornton at his most snaky and Carvillesque. Yes, it’s entertaining, but, no, it’s not a great movie – particularly with its mea-culpa ending that’s meant as redemption.
The main reason to see Brian Helgeland’s “Legend” is for the performances of Tom Hardy, playing twin gangsters Reg and Ron Kray (who were also the subject of a 1990 film, “The Krays”). He makes both of these tough guys totally distinctive, whether as the sharp-edged Reg (the brains of the outfit) or the psychotic Ron (more quick with the violent overreaction).
But Helgeland’s script never finds its stride, bouncing from moments of brutal violence to scenes of talky exposition and momentum-killing meetings. Lots of meetings. The violence itself is gruesome to watch but more compelling than the rest of the film, most of which seems like filler between the action.
Hardy, however, is sensational as both brothers, each buoyed and weighed down by their sibling relationship. They are a team that eventually is at odds with each other, but that conflict is more tedious than compelling. It’s a shame to waste a pair of strong performances on a film as middling as this one.
So, out of the frying pan and into the fire: Next week, I’m back in New York to start seeing press screenings for the New York Film Festival.
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