Movies in 2008: From top to bottom: ‘Milk’ brings us hope

Posted on 23 Dec 2008 at 5:23pm
By Steve Warren Contributing Film Critic


Penn refreshing in ‘Milk’: Portraying a man who fuelled activism, Sean Penn delivers one of his finest performances.

It’s been three years since "Brokeback Mountain," and we’ve finally got another queer film. This one by a queer director, winning awards and connecting with mainstream audiences: Gus Van Sant’s "Milk," the inspiring and empowering story of Harvey Milk, which ironically has a happy political ending in the defeat of 1978′s Proposition 6 before the tragic personal ending with the murders of Milk and Mayor George Moscone.

We can only speculate about what might have happened if Californians had seen "Milk" — and Marc Shaiman’s Internet fave "Proposition 8: The Musical" — before the election, but better late than never.

Sean Penn seems a shoo-in for an Oscar for the title role, unless a backlash helps Mickey Rourke, who’s been shooting off his homophobic mouth, or sentiment favors Clint Eastwood, who’s been talking about retiring from acting after "Gran Torino." Even though "Milk" is largely a one-man show, three supporting actors have been mentioned as possible contenders: James Franco for kissing Harvey, Josh Brolin for killing him and Emile Hirsch for being inspired by him. Out screenwriter Dustin Lance Black also has a good chance, having already been picked by several critics’ groups, and Van Sant should at least be nominated.
Also high on the list of the year’s best is "The Reader," whose director, Stephen Daldry, is out but has a wife and child — the gay version of having it all?

Some other out filmmakers made it to multiplexes in 2008, albeit with less than stellar results: Tom Kalin with "Savage Grace," Andrew Fleming with the uber-campy "Hamlet 2" (the real "High School Musical," although Lucas Grabeel, who’s also in "Milk," brought a gay touch to "High School Musical 3: Senior Year") and Kimberly Peirce with the Iraq War homefront drama "Stop-Loss."

"Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom" proved a sleeper hit in arthouses, proving African-American gays (and those who love them) are an underserved audience.
Queer characters and references were too numerous to mention, but we can’t leave out Justin Long and Brandon Routh as a couple in "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," a straight movie that was practically gay-obsessed; and the lesbian subplot in "The Edge of Heaven," my favorite foreign language film of the year.

The waste of Jada Pinkett Smith’s lesbian character in the ill-conceived remake of "The Women" was a typical example of using us to be trendy, as was straight hairdresser Adam Sandler’s entry into a room of cameo-ing queens in "You Don’t Mess with the Zohan." The kiss between Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz in "Vicki Cristina Barcelona" got far more hype than it deserved.

Festivals complain that we hold queer films to too high a standard, i.e., the same standard as any other films. Aside from Gus Van Sant, there were very good queer films this year from Robert Cary ("Save Me"), Dallas filmmaker Yen Tan ("Ciao"), Damion Dietz ("Dog Tags"), James Vasquez ("Ready? OK!") and Laurie Lynd ("Breakfast with Scot").

Add to these some acceptable fluff like "Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild" and "Kiss the Bride" (and these lists are by no means exhaustive) and there’s no need to pretend that some of the other crap out there is worth seeing just because it was made by gays or lesbians. There are hacks of all orientations, just as there are geniuses of all orientations.

As I write this, I’m suffering from extreme epic fatigue — when studios cram as much as they can into "Award Season." For me "Milk" and "The Reader" managed to stand out from the clutter.

Some of these titles will be unfamiliar to you because they haven’t opened here yet, others because they came and went quickly or bypassed us entirely. All are worth seeking out.

Top 10:
1. "Milk"
2. "The Reader"
3. "Burn After Reading"
4. "In Bruges"
5. "American Teen"
6. "Slumdog Millionaire"
7. "Vicki Cristina Barcelona"
8. "Iron Man"
9. "Revolutionary Road"
10. "The Wackness"

Honorable mention (listed alphabetically): "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Dark Knight," "The Edge of Heaven," "Frost/Nixon," "Gran Torino," "Leatherheads," "Son of Rambow," "Tropic Thunder" and "Wanted."

Best foreign-language: "The Edge of Heaven. " Runners-up: "Jellyfish" and "Priceless."

Best documentary: "American Teen." Runners-up: "Body of War" and "Up the Yangtze."

Best animated: "Wall-E." Runners-up: "Kung Fu Panda" and "Bolt"
Best cult film: "Repo! The Genetic Opera." Runners-up: "The Signal" and "Zombie Strippers."

Best director: Clint Eastwood, "Gran Torino" and "Changeling." Runners-up: Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"; Sam Mendes, "Revolutionary Road."

Best actress: Kate Winslet, "The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road." Runners-up: Meryl Streep, "Doubt"; Melissa Leo, "Frozen River."

Best actor: Sean Penn, "Milk." Runners-up: Mickey Rourke, "The Wrestler"; Richard Jenkins, "The Visitor."

Best supporting actress: Penelope Cruz, "Vicki Cristina Barcelona." Runners-up: Viola Davis, "Doubt"; Rosemarie DeWitt, "Rachel Getting Married."

Best supporting actor: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight." Runners-up: Robert Downey Jr., "Tropic Thunder"; Josh Brolin, "Milk."

Best original screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, "Milk." Runners-up: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, "Burn After Reading"; Woody Allen, "Vicki Cristina Barcelona."

Best adapted screenplay: David Hare, "The Reader." Runners-up: Simon Beaufoy, "Slumdog Millionaire"; Peter Morgan, "Frost/Nixon."

Worst 10:
1. The Love Guru
2. Max Payne
3. Cover
4. Disaster Movie
5. Fool’s Gold
6. Bottle Shock
7. Meet Dave
8. The Ruins
9. Meet the Spartans
10. Hell Ride

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 26, 2008.

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