Sunday, March 15, 2009

Day Fifty-One: Milk (2008) - Rank 4/5


Before I caught "Milk," I had confidence that Mickey Rourke stood a good chance for winning the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in "The Wrestler." That notion was dissolved once I saw Sean Penn's uncanny portrayal of Harvey Milk. The biopic follows Milk from his humble beginnings as a store owner in San Fransisco to his status as an individual of national notoriety as the first gay man elected into office (and subsequently, his assassination). Bang up performances by Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch and James Franco (who's endeavoring to break the heartthrob icon as Heath Ledger did with his performance in this film as well as "Pineapple Express"). I could still make an argument that Mickey Rourke would be a fitting "dark horse" candidate for the award, because it is equally as compelling. However, there is one major difference that separates them and that is the source material.

While the role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson is a challenging task, there are many elements of the character that are reminiscent of aspects of Rourke's life. To a degree, he is playing himself - albeit an exaggerated form. As for Harvey Milk, that is not only a role that is unlike Sean Penn or any of his previous roles (it's the very antithesis of his last award-winning role in "Mystic River"), but it is a part that carries with it the high expectation of paying homage to a passed individual. That latter element tends to push actors to a higher level where they embody a role rather than play it (other recent Best Actor wins for Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote come quickly to mind).

Furthermore, the film could easily be compared with fellow Best Picture nominee "Frost/Nixon," for both focus on major events from the late 1970's (as well as featuring leads that served as powerful political figures during that decade). Upon reflection, I feel that "Milk" is the superior of the two, because "Frost/Nixon" seems tightly focused within it's own word of the duality of the two leads (and rightfully so, considering the material). "Milk" captures the very essence of the era far better than I've seen it depicted in some time - a country leaving behind the Vietnam War, filled with individuals spawned of the counterculture of the 1960's now struggling for identity. The focus shifts from New York to Florida to Washington D.C. and always back to California, giving the viewer a sensation of what is taking place nationwide - far more so than Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon."

This marked the first time since 2005 (Best Picture: "Million Dollar Baby") that I've had the opportunity to see all five films nominated for Best Picture prior to the Academy Awards. My feeling then (and still now, despite knowing the outcome) is that "The Reader" was the best film of the year. The character analysis and development through secrecy and the painfully tragic love story both felt new to me and was flawlessly directed by Stephen Daldry (who is now three for three when it comes to nominations of his films - the previous two being for "Billy Elliot" and "The Hours"). "Frost/Nixon," as I mentioned two posts ago, I felt could have been better replaced by "Doubt." "Slumdog Millionaire," while an excellent film, was the tried and true "boy meets girl, loses girl and then overcomes adversity to get the girl in the end" tale I've seen many times. I do think it was the best directed film of the five, but over-hyped when it came to being regarded as Best Picture. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" was certainly deserving of the nomination for the scope of the picture, though as my friend Bennett correctly identified, it pulls too many cues from "Forrest Gump" to set it above the others. "Milk" could have been a "dark horse" candidate, but it's strongest attribute, Sean Penn's performance, was what it was deservedly rewarded with in the end.

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