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Rob Edelman: Oscar Frontrunners

Of the eight Best Picture Academy Award nominees, the two that are the frontrunners are THE REVENANT and SPOTLIGHT. Both films are well worth seeing-- and contemplating.

At its core, THE REVENANT is a saga of survival and perseverance in a bleak, cruel world. Ever so briefly, it is the tale of a fur trapper, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in a performance that likely will net him the Best Actor Oscar. The time is the 1820s and the trapper must face off against everything from a beautiful but deadly natural landscape, a landscape of mountains and rivers that are nothing short of breathtaking, to the arbitrary cruelty of the various living creatures that surround him.

THE REVENANT may be set in the rural America of almost two centuries ago but, while watching it, I could not stop thinking about our present day. Every day, it seems, we wake up to news reports of unspeakable violence, of terrorists whose acts result in the deaths of countless individuals or unhinged souls who shoot up schools and shopping malls. However, while watching THE REVENANT, I was reminded that casual in-your-face violence is nothing new. It may have come in different forms centuries ago, but it still is an intrinsic part of everyday survival. 

And it is for this reason that all the violent images in THE REVENANT serve an essential purpose within the framework of the story. Such also is the case in other films. Two that come to mind are FIGHT CLUB and 12 YEARS A SLAVE. In these films, the brutality is anything but eye candy that desensitizes the viewer. Its purpose is to offer up a realistic, matter-of-fact portrait of a violent world.  

THE REVENANT also is stunningly directed by Alejandro GonzálezIñárritu, who is one of our era’s great visual stylists. One year ago, Iñárritu won the Best Director Oscar for BIRDMAN. It would be no surprise if he makes it two in a row.

Now on to SPOTLIGHT, which is the fact-based story of a group of Boston Globe investigative reporters who uncover the long, sad history of the sexual abuse of children on the part of Catholic priests. SPOTLIGHT is solidly directed by Tom McCarthy and pointedly scripted by McCarthy and Josh Singer. Two of its actors, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, are best supporting performer nominees. But if Academy Awards were given to entire casts for their work, the SPOTLIGHT actors definitely would be in the running.

However, while watching SPOTLIGHT, I recalled a time, not too long ago, when the tellers of such tales were loudly dissed by the church and accused of being anti-Catholic and anti-religion. Their line was that this sort of behavior and similar abuses of authority on the part of church officials never occurred. Plus, in cinematic terms, all priests should be portrayed as the idealized good guys played by Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald seventy-plus years ago in GOING MY WAY.

But times have changed, and the SPOTLIGHT storyline has not been met with across-the-board condemnation. In fact, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston has been quoted as admitting that the Globe’s reporting inspired the church to “deal with what was shameful and hidden.” And finally, at a time in which way too much news reporting seems to originate from press releases, SPOTLIGHT indeed spotlights the importance of a free press and the efforts of singleminded investigative journalists to peel away the hype, and search for the truth.

Rob Edelman as written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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