Last year brought us two films of fighting “the system” (a term used, multiple times, in both films): Spotlight, the story of Boston Globe reporters investigating the Catholic Church abuse cases, and The Big Short, concerning several professionals in the financial sector who recognize the housing bubble is waiting to burst. In each, we are treated to many scenes of passionate, frustrated advocates, appalled at the wrongs they learn of, and how they will do their darnedest to make sure the world knows.
Maybe I’m being cynical, but films of this nature have zero appeal to me. Not that the causes depicted therein aren’t worthy ones, or aren’t stories that should be told, but these particular movies aren’t very challenging or even interesting. It’s not progressing art to showcase good people doing good things, without unique or innovative elements to heighten a formulaic narrative. Audiences aren’t grappling with any complex moral situations from these films; it’s all laid out pretty cleanly in front of us.
The most disappointing aspect of all is, I fear, the stereotypical millennial spirit of naivete and entitlement is invading film, infiltrating that most sacred of institutions: the Academy Awards. I can handle Lena Dunham-esque angst on HBO’s Girls; I don’t have to watch it, nor is it placed on some pedestal (anymore, at least). But I am shocked to see films of this simple, shallow nature to be considered among this year’s finest, and will become immortalized within the time capsule of award nominations, possibly wins. Whiny people outraged by wrongs until their voices get heard is a chilling echo of the often-parodied millennial entitlement attitude, of a naive oversimplified view of right versus wrong: the rallying cry of “Something bad happened, so we’re outraged, and where are the consequences!”
Such is the recurring, exhausting thread in both these movies. I fear for the future of cinema, or at least the critical recognition of what constitutes quality film, when this type of movie-making, which takes zero risks and offers audiences exactly what they expect (maybe want?) is what’s considered The Best. Is this daring? Does this progress film as an art form?
Take Spotlight, for instance. This subscribes to what I consider The Hills style of storytelling: scenes play out (which we see), then we are treated to a bonus scene where what we just witnessed is recapped. Many of these include scenes with lawyers, clergy, and victims – all of whom can neatly be categorized as good versus evil. The lines are not remotely blurred in this journalistic “drama” in which we already know the outcome.
Or even The Big Short. This narrative style is more aligned with Ryan Murphy, from its irritatingly short shots plus close-ups into random faces and images within the scene. I’d hope that this all meant something for the movie, but it sure felt less like a supplemental element to the storytelling and more a cure for short attention span. Even the story, minus its elements, is a continental journey of good-hearted financiers who know the crisis is coming and are frustrated at every turn. Each story development follows the standard arc of “new economic concept, respective personal element, the characters getting mad,” and repeat. Fortunately, celebrity cameo moments like Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain oversimplifying complex economic concepts make boring finance more fun, I guess.
I don’t like to write negative reviews. I want to like the movies that I see. Usually I just pass on a blog post if there’s something I’m really not feeling, but these two tales of plucky individuals fighting all odds, stories which have been told countless times before, have been considered among the year’s best despite being told in perfectly traditional, uninteresting ways.
Either something is wrong with our film industry (where everything is so bad that these two look good), or something is in the water among critics’ circles. I fear it is the latter, again tying back to an immature, undeveloped millennial angst. As it is unlikely these films are genuinely considered artistic achievements, it must be the severity of their subject matter that earns them such praise. It’s as though the act of recognizing films that chastise the corruption within the Catholic Church, or the evilness of the banks, is making a symbolic statement alongside the films, taking a stance against such acts. (How brave!) These feel like they should be important movies, so let’s just pretend they are.