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‘Spotlight’ Could Finally Bring Open Road a Best Pic Nom

Tom McCarthy's newsroom procedural boasts a well-oiled ensemble that is sure to catch the attention of voters this season.

Since launching in 2011 through a partnership between theater chains AMC Theatres and Regal Entertainment Group, distributor Open Road Films has amassed a sui generis blend of often genre-leaning product that stands apart from the competition. Movies like Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” (longtime readers will recall my affinity for that, the best film of 2012) and Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” were favorably received by critics, while others like Jon Favreau’s “Chef” were hits as well. But none truly flirted with the awards season until last year’s “Nightcrawler.”

Nevertheless, Dan Gilroy’s broadcast news thriller came up short, too. It picked up surprise notices from the producers and screen actors guilds and was, for obvious reasons, adored by press and critics groups. But only the writers branch of the Academy spoke up for it come Oscar time. It was a scathing film, one that packed a heavy and cynical punch — perhaps too cynical. Maybe voters had trouble embracing that. Maybe they struggled between Jake Gyllenhaal’s uncanny performance and another creepy depiction in the field, Steve Carell’s in “Foxcatcher.” Or maybe the high simply wore off as films like “American Sniper” came along to rally support toward the end.

Whatever the case, it’s interesting to note that the company will be back this season with yet another pulse-quickening tale of journalists on the beat, albeit one that colors the profession in a much more noble light. And that could make all the difference. Indeed, Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” has a real shot at becoming Open Road’s first best picture nominee to date.

After testing through the roof this summer, the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival Thursday and is expected to screen in Telluride this weekend before moving on to Toronto. A focused, dialed-down account of shoe-leather reporting at its finest, it’s one of the great newsroom dramas. And it will be sweet vindication for McCarthy, whose last film — Adam Sandler starrer “The Cobbler” — was mauled by critics.

(Said mauling was sort of over the top, I thought. “The Cobbler” was a harmless film in the vein of lesser Woody Allen. People just expected more from McCarthy, who had been on a tear with critical darlings like “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and “Win/Win.”)

Spotlight’s” biggest commodity is its ensemble, a well-oiled machine that makes everything click just so. And it ought to be taken seriously by the Screen Actors Guild’s Nomination Committee in a few months because this is nothing if not an “Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture.”

Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James star as the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team, tasked by a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), with investigating allegations of pedophilia in the Catholic Church only nominally covered by the paper previously. Heading up the crew is Walter “Robby” Robinson, and no doubt, it’s a role and a performance that will bring actor Michael Keaton back to the, ahem, spotlight this season.

Because if anyone should be singled out — and I hesitate to suggest anyone should — it might be Keaton. He’s like the conscience of the film, rooting around for information but increasingly wracked with guilt that this explosive story had not been taken seriously until late 2001, when the Spotlight Team began digging.

Ruffalo pops as well, impressively sliding into the skin of reporter Michael Rezendes with a nervous, tick-heavy energy that could belong only to an obsessively curious journalist. I’m told he will be campaigned as a lead for awards purposes, with Keaton in supporting, but I really feel like the latter represents the whole too completely to avoid. And it’s such a departure from his laureled work in “Birdman” last year.

The rest of the cast fills out from there — Stanley Tucci as an overworked lawyer taking on countless individual survivor cases, Billy Crudup as another who facilitated hushed pay-offs, John Slattery as an editor (Ben Bradlee Jr.) with news in his blood, etc. All hitting their notes perfectly. There’s just no way this doesn’t remain one of the best ensemble performances of the year.

Support could very well be thrown elsewhere, too. Editors will surely respect the work Tom McArdle put into keeping the pacing tight. Lensers will appreciate Masanobu Takayanagi’s compositions, which keep the cold, concrete world of the film interesting. Composers may take to Howard Shore’s somber, unwavering theme. And writers and directors will no doubt understand what McCarthy pulled off here: a talking head drama that leaves you thoroughly satisfied.

“Spotlight” is the kind of film I could see voters leeching onto as other hyped contenders miss the mark throughout the season. It will play exceptionally well on the small screen, too, as many will no doubt catch up to it on screener. But what’s more, it’s a feel-good vote. You can’t come away from this film with anything less than utter appreciation and reverence for the fifth estate. That’s powerful romance, and when it works — “All the President’s Men,” “The Insider” — it can be really inspiring.

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