Outstanding 2015 movies: Spotlight, Concussion, The Big Short

Many 2015 films came out simply for the entertainment dollar: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Jurassic World” come to mind. There’s nothing bad about that. I enjoyed them.

However, there were three outstanding reality-based films:  “Spotlight,” “The Big Short,” and “Concussion.

What’s so special about them? Despite not being documentaries, they stick with you. They made you think beyond walking out of the theater. They evoke emotions. What a change from most theaters.

“Spotlight” dealt with the investigative reporting team (the Spotlight) at the Boston Globe who broke the clergy / child abuse scandal. They won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for it.

“The Big Short” is the story of some financial traders who bet against the U.S. housing market in the years before the 2008 market crash. It is taken from the Michael Lewis book of the same name.

“Concussion” is the story of Bennet Omalu, a forensic physician, who discovered the dangers of football play by examining the brains of deceased players.

A film like “Spotlight” is about the grungy, hard, non-flashy world of journalism. It’s reporters getting onto the streets of Boston, talking to victims, doing the hard work of digging into the past with the help of their news librarians / researchers. (In full disclosure this is how I started in journalism: ripping newspaper clippings to file in the library/morgue.)  It made me so proud of investigative journalism I almost cried in the theater.

“The Big Short” stirred different emotions. It’s a pretty good way to understand what nearly brought the economy down in 2008. By the end, you’re shaking your head as Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) is doing at the greed and veniality of Wall Street. You feel sorry for the poor people who were entangled by the financiers. (Hell, you even feel a little bit sorry for the alligator.) You feel little sympathy for Wall Street, Goldman Sachs, the regulators (though Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan has a wonderful bit part) and the banks. In the end, as the main characters look at the rubble around them-the financial equivalent of a nuclear bomb site-they don’t look happy or triumphant. Millions of people were hit back then, and many are still struggling. Want to know why? Go see “The Big Short” and learn. (Again, full disclosure: Having worked with Kevin G. Hall, Greg Gordon and Chris Adams (who were 2010 Pulitzer Finalists) on their stories (and videos) regarding this topic, this film brought up many memories of the disbelief we experienced as this was happening.)

“Concussion” is especially timely as the football season goes into the playoffs. The story of the physician, Omalu (played by Will Smith) who discovered CTE and faced the wrath of the NFL after publishing his findings in a medical journal is a great story. The film derives from an article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas in GQ. The best part is that Omalu’s work actually changed playing football. The doctor who supported him Dr. Cyril Wecht (brilliantly played by Albert Brooks) is marvelous, as was Alec Baldwin as Dr. Julian Bailes, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ team physician. Unfortunately, I felt the flick was weakened by slow pacing.

All of these films are more than “park brain, eat popcorn” movies. (Hello, “Jurassic World,” “Age of Ultron” or even-shudder-“Pixels.)

Let’s hope that Hollywood makes more like “Spotlight,” “The Big Short,” “Concussion” in 2016.

(Oh, you say Marvel has a new blockbuster for next year? And a new “Star Wars” flick for Christmas? MAKE MORE POPCORN!)


Update: My friend, John Singh, also chimes in with his opinion on “The Big Short” in his blog Out There In the Dark: Thoughts on Movies. He works in the entertainment industry.

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