‘Milk’ brings us hope, in a 2008 full of great films

The annual 10 best, 10 worst and everything in between

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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. I’m talking, of course, about 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.”

Andrew Fleming in the film Hamlet 2

“Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom” proved a sleeper hit in arthouses, proving African American gays (and those who love them) are an under-served audience.

Queer characters and references, mostly positive or neutral, 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 gay students Nanette Burstein interviewed didn’t make the cut in her documentary “American Teen,” and Luis Guzman’s gay-curious character seemed like he would come out in “Nothing Like the Holidays” but he never did.

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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”), Yen Tan (“Ciao”), Damion Dietz (“Dog Tags”), James Vasquez (“Ready? OK!”) and Laurie Lynd (“Breakfast with Scot”); and from foreign filmmakers, whose orientation we don’t know about, “OSS 117: Cairo – Nest of Spies” and “Boystown”; and documentaries “Chris & Don: A Love Story,” “Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon,” “Sex Positive” and “Call Me Troy.”

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.

The channels for distributing queer films are becoming better defined, with more chains and independent theaters willing to take our money, which means more exposure for some films between the queer festival circuit and their DVD release on TLA, Wolfe, here! or Picture This!
As I write this I’m suffering from extreme epic fatigue. Each year the major studios and independent distributors cram as much product as they can into “Award Season,” which coincides with a year-end box office bonanza for a few commercial releases.

For critics this means being force-fed two or three heavily hyped films a day, some of which we might have appreciated more in leaner times. A diamond shines brighter in a pile of dung than it does in a pile of diamonds.

For me “Milk” and “The Reader” managed to stand out from the clutter, but I would have been more impressed with “Frost/Nixon” in May, “The Wrestler” in July and “Revolutionary Road” in September. “Australia” and “Valkyrie” would have been disappointments in any month.

Each year a few decent films fall by the wayside because their distributors roll the dice at awards time in hopes of getting enough nominations and Ten Best listings to raise their profile. When that doesn’t happen the films, which might have had a decent run against less “prestige” competition, go directly to video. Even nominations don’t always help when everything else in the marketplace has them too.

This seemed like a pretty fair year as it went along, with just enough good to near-great films each month to keep me from sending that letter of resignation I always keep handy; but when it came time to compile the year-end list I was surprised at how little enthusiasm I had for most of my favorites. Perhaps if there’d been time to watch some of them again. But the year-end logjam doesn’t let us see everything once, let alone twice, plus there’s the fatigue factor.

I had no trouble ranking “Iron Man” ahead of “The Dark Knight,” which faltered significantly in its last half-hour; but without time to re-watch “Leatherheads,” for which I was almost alone in my admiration, I let the prevailing wisdom push it from my Top Ten to Second Ten. I still clung to a few others that aren’t on everybody’s lists, letting my taste for dark comedy place “Burn after Reading” and “In Bruges” near the top.
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 Ten:
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”

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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”
“Wanted”

Best Foreign-Language Film:
“The Edge of Heaven”
Runners-up: “Jellyfish,” “Priceless”

Best Documentary Feature:
“American Teen”
Runners-up: “Body of War,” “Up the Yangtze”

Best Animated Film:
“WALL•E”
Runners-up: “Kung Fu Panda,” “Bolt”

Best Cult Film:
“Repo! The Genetic Opera”
Runners-up: “The Signal,” “Zombie Strippers”

Best Director:
Clint Eastwood, “Gran Torino” & “Changeling”
Runners-up: Danny Boyle, “Slumdog Millionaire;” Sam Mendes, “Revolutionary Road”

Best Actress:
Kate Winslet, “The Reader” & “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 Original Screenplay:
Dustin Lance Black, “Milk”
Runners-up: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, “Burn after Reading;” Woody Allen, “Vicki Cristina Barcelona”

Bottom Ten:
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”

Dishonorable Mention
(listed alphabetically):
“Babylon A.D.”
“Bangkok Dangerous”
“88 Minutes”
“Elegy”
“Four Christmases”
“The Last Mistress”
“Made of Honor”
“My Blueberry Nights”
“Synecdoche, New York”
“The X-Files: I Want to Believe”

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