Well, the year is almost over and my top ten list is seriously lacking. Don’t get me wrong… I enjoyed the hell out of Kit Kittredge and Kung-Fu Panda. But I wouldn’t expect them to be among the ten best films of the year in mid-December.
But there is hope on the horizon, in the form of a host of late-release “award” films, some of which are bound to be pretty good.
First out of the gate is Milk, Gus Van Sant’s touching biopic about the Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official. My knowledge of Milk was limited to some vague details about his death at the hands of another city official, particularly the reliance on “the Twinkie defense” to explain his crime. Van Sant, and especially lead actor Sean Penn, have done a wonderful job bringing the rest of Milk’s story to life.
I have mixed feelings about Sean Penn as a person — he comes across as way too arrogant, serious and full of himself. My impression of him is encapsulated by his wet blanket appearance on the Oscars a few years back, when he took offense at a Jude Law joke and used his on stage time to chide host Chris Rock. Give me a break!
But as an actor, the man has few peers. I’m hard-pressed to think of anybody who disappears into a role the way he does. His work in Milk is no exception, and in a way it’s even more impressive than some of his showier roles. He brings a flamboyance and emotional honesty to the character that feels completely genuine and never comes close to parody.
The supporting cast is equally strong, especially Emile Hirsch as a young activist and James Franco as Milk’s longtime companion. Josh Brolin, who has emerged as one of the best actors in the business over the past three years, is creepily effective as Milk’s colleague and eventual assassin. A montage over the end credits shows each actor’s real-life counterpart and underscores how spot-on the casting is.
Van Sant largely sticks to a documentary style, even blending in real news footage from the time, though he does allow himself a few theatrical flourishes, for better or worse.
It’s strange to see an “historical” film about a fight over an anti-gay ballot measure in California just a month after Proposition 8 passed. I suppose it’s progress that the fight is now over marriage and not whether gays should be allowed to teach in public schools. Hopefully 30 years from now the debates of 2008 will seem as outrageous as these late-70s debates seem to us now.