2008 hasn't been the greatest year for strong dramas. In fact, up until a few weeks ago, there wasn't anything that had been released in theaters that resembled an Oscar-worthy pick, aside from The Dark Knight. Blame it on the writer's strike, or just raised expectations based on the last few years of excellent films, but 2008 just hasn't delivered in that way. Thankfully, with several more big pictures coming soon, the first big heavy hitter is here: Milk.
Sean Penn delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to major political office. Presumably, he was also the first openly gay man elected to major political office to be assassinated. The story is a tragic one, but it is also an uplifting one, as we watch Harvey's slow rise to power and the impact he had one a few crucial bills. Milk, along with his crew of friends and his lover (James Franco), struggle through persecution by religious wingnuts, misguided people and even the police, before finally succeeding. However, once there, they find themselves faced with a crucial, state-wide bill that would effectively allow gays to be fired from their jobs, among other misfortunes.
As mentioned, Penn is an amazing. He completely immerses himself in the role, transforming him into an alter ego that is hardly recognizable. He's believable, serious, funny and just about everything in between, and gives one of the most authentic performances I've seen in a long time. Homosexuals have a stereotype, and Penn's does a great job at breaking that. Mickey Rourke, the early leader for Best Actor, certainly has something to worry about.
Penn is supported by a great cast, including Franco, Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin. Franco continues to define himself as an underrated actor, and Hirsch considerable range. As for Brolin, it's amazing to think that just a little over a year ago, pretty much no one knew his name - and now he's starred in an Oscar-winning picture, played the President of the United States and is another sure-to-be Oscar-nominated film. His understated role in Milk isn't incredible, but he too turns in a good performance.
As for director Gus Van Sant, this is his best movie since 1997's Good Will Hunting. He has made several very good films since, but none have gelled in such a complete way as this. There's nothing incredible about the direction, but with a strong screenplay and excellent acting, Milk doesn't require elaborate film work. And, of course, Van Sant's normal direction is still much better than most.
Of the movies I've seen in 2008 thus far, Milk is the best drama thus far, edging out Slumdog Millionaire. In a year where California just passed a horrible bill that bans gay marriage due to the strong influence of churches, Milk rings especially relevant and shows that we still have a long way to go before the United States treats everyone equally. Highly recommended.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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