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It’s hard to believe but I’m putting together my top ten even later than last year. Again I had hoped to catch up on some movies I missed, but yet again that barely happened. But truthfully this time there weren’t that many I feel like I missed the boat on by skipping.

2008 wasn’t a great year. I’d say it continues a trend starting in 2006, the year Brian and Jared started this project and the early first discussions among the four of us. 2006 had a strong crop of great movies (The Departed, Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth). 2007 had a handful of great films (Knocked Up, Hairspray) but a much larger group of very good films (Once, Mr. Brooks). 2008 had few great or very good films, but a huge chunk of merely good films. My top five were easy to pick. The next three became fairly obvious. But literally two dozen films vied for those final two slots. On the one hand, that’s a nice group of films in contention. On the other hand, all are flawed and wouldn’t have come close to my top ten in previous years.

Enough rambling, on with the list!

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1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  A rare film that left me feeling like I had experienced something, although it wasn’t a very pleasant something. Writer/director Christian Mungiu explores abortion in 1980s Romania, where the procedure, along with many other freedoms, are restricted under a Communist regime. Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu play college roommates Otilia and Gabita. When the latter becomes pregnant, the former helps her find a doctor to perform an abortion and sets up the particulars. It’s a night full of unsavory characters and dirty hotel rooms. Otilia also must balance her duties caring for her friend with commitments to her boyfriend (where “I need to help Gabita get an abortion” will not suffice as an excuse).

The subject matter is tough and bleak. Mungiu’s stylistic choices are always fascinating but never distracting. His shots run for minutes at a time, often with the camera remaining still and the subjects moving throughout the frame. One scene where Gabita sits down to dine with her boyfriend’s family lasts a very uncomfortable, unbroken ten minutes. It’s a technique nearly identical to the one used in the only other recent Romanian film I’ve seen, 12:08 East of Bucharest. Romanian cinema is said to be undergoing a renaissance; can a reader let me know if this is part of the new Romanian style?

The abortion scenes are extraordinarily graphic and brutally realist although not needlessly lurid. I wouldn’t say it contains any politics and I suspect most viewers will feel the movie supports whatever abortion views they had going in. I know that months later I find several images from this film deeply affecting.

4 Months won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007 but failed to make even the Foreign Language shortlist. The outcry surely factored into the Academy’s decision to alter that category’s nomination procedures for 2008. A short qualifying run made it eligible for the 2007 Oscars – and both Marinca and Vasiliu would have been very deserving nominees in the Lead and Supporting categories, respectively – but didn’t get a real commercial US release until 2008. It is a true masterpiece, but one I have no intent of viewing again soon.

dark knight

2. The Dark Knight. We’ve discussed this movie a lot around here, but I keep coming back to the same thought: The Dark Knight is like someone wrote a superhero movie just for me. It has the genre’s requisite action sequences, humorous sidekicks, sleek gadgets, and scheming villains but with a complexity and dark edge that one rarely sees in films, let alone in a genre flick. This truly got to me in parts, helped of course by Heath Ledger’s legendary performance, and made it gave me points to ponder leaving the theater. Those are qualities I love to find in any film of any genre.

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3. The Wrestler. I fully enjoyed this film when I saw it initially but I’ve found it has risen in my esteem even further over subsequent months. At its heart it’s such a simple story so well told of people whose peaks are far behind them and whose only glories will never be achieved again. Mickey Rourke’s baring performance is incredible (and I remind you that the dude cut himself for real in those wrestling scenes and that is bad ass) while Marisa Tomei is her usual sparkling self. And nomination snub be damned, can you think of a song that so perfectly encapsulated its film like Bruce Springsteen’s title song over the credits? The fade to black and the first strums of that song are just so perfect.

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4. Milk. Who knew a formulaic Oscar-bait genre pic could be so good? It tells the story a remarkable subject and does so incredibly well. Milk manages to be a message movie without becoming overly preachy and it maintains an over-arching narrative without straying too far into the classic biopic “tick the box” feel. Director Gus Van Sant gives it an intense feel of time and place, transporting the viewer into the middle of tumultuous 1970s San Francisco. And perhaps most notably it is full of terrific performances, not just from the incomparable Oscar winner Sean Penn but also supporting players Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch.

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5. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. The last few years have seen some incredible documentaries where filmmakers happened to be filming what would have been a rather pedestrian film just to capture an incredible turn of events (think King of Kong). Here, when his friend Dr Andrew Bagby was murdered in 2001, director Kurt Kuenne decided to make a film about his deceased friend. A noble subject to be sure, but probably one that results in an intensely personal and not widely-seen final product. But Andrew’s ex-girlfriend and suspected killer, Shirley Turner, fled to her native Newfoundland where she announced she was pregnant with Andrew’s child. Kuenne’s film turned into a film for Andrew’s son, Zachary, to tell him about his father.

Andrew’s parents David and Kathleen move to Newfoundland to battle Shirley for custody of Zachary while the wheels of justice turn unbearably slow. The Bagbys must maintain a friendly relationship with their son’s murderer in order to see their grandson, an unthinkably painful prospect. The twists and turns continue as the courts make rulings and Shirley’s sanity appears unstable. I will not come close to revealing the film’s resolution. David and Kathleen end up becoming the main characters in this incredible story; their resolve is truly remarkable.

Dear Zachary did the festival circuit and had a short theatrical run in 2008, but I saw it on MSNBC. It may have future airings there and I would recommend checking it out if it does.

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6. Slumdog Millionaire. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with the points Slumdog backlash devotees make. It feels mildly exploitative, the acting isn’t particularly great, and the plot strains credibility. I think for the most part it doesn’t really matter. The way the story advances through incredible chance does bother me to some extent, but I accept it as a modern fairy tale. Most fairy tales take outlandish turns. And I don’t really know how you can make a film about extreme poverty without it feeling at least somewhat exploitative unless it dwells on only the most negative aspects of human existence. The life of the poor isn’t horrible for every second of every day and it’s not necessarily glamorizing poverty to show that in a film.

Slumdog is always fascinating. The adjective that still comes into my head all these months later is “vibrant” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. I think that’s too positive a word. It is vibrant, but also brutal and nasty and dirty and raw. Maybe “pulsating” is a better word, helped with by the Oscar-winning camera work and score. I do love films where the settings feel like a major character; this was the case with my 2007 love affair with The Assassination of Jesse James and the same holds for the bustling slums of Mumbai even tough they couldn’t be further from the emptiness of the Great Plains in Jesse James. In a way I felt like I had spent two hours experiencing India. Truthfully I’m not sure Slumdog will hold up well as a Best Picture winner but it’s a pretty fantastic immersive experience with a crowd-pleasing ending.

sarah marshall

7. Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I always knew this would make my list, but a reviewing several months ago surprised me with how good it truly is. I think with films that depend on humor and shock value subsequent viewings will necessarily lose some of the impact. And that happened here, but by not guffawing so hard I caught how well-crafted it is. The characters are interesting, well-developed, and amusing. The jokes are taut and clever; the plot engaging. Plus it has some moments that could be considered truly classic (think Dracula musical and YOU SHALL NOT PASS!).

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8. In Bruges. I like a movie that can get to me a little and this very, very dark comedy did. Much like Sarah Marshall it depends to some extent on shock value, but even if you know what’s coming it’s still deeply engrossing and the ruminations on fate only get more fascinating. Great performances and fully-developed characters make the subject matter and strange twists and turns seem natural. The concept is a little insane (odd couple hitmen hiding in Belgium!) but the execution is spot-on to the point that it doesn’t really seem that insane.

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9. Tropic Thunder. Does this clever and funny film make writer/director Ben Stiller respectable? I mean, Zoolander was quite good too. Like the previous two films on my list I’m surprised how well it held up on a second viewing; here you take out the shock value and it’s still damn funny. Maybe even funnier. The Hollywood mockery is clever and the fake trailers that begin the movie are hilarious. The Golden Globe nod for Tom Cruise is kind of a joke, but Robert Downey Jr’s recognition surely is not. He’s an actor in blackface acting as an actor in blackface acting in a movie. And he does the DVD commentary as his character’s character. Heady!

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10. Let the Right One In. What an interesting mixture of genres. It’s a vampire movie and does have some genuinely creepy moments straight out of a good horror film. But the film’s wide appeal is clearly due to the very sweet tween romance between protagonists Oskar and Elli (the vampire). I haven’t seen Twilight but I think I can safely say that Let the Right One In beats it at its own game. The DVD subtitle controversy may have the internet up in arms, but this is a real winner no matter what subtitles you get. In fact, I’ve read comparisons of the two sets of subtitles and the new set has a few sections that are superior to the theatrical set. I think it’s rare to see a vampire movie that’s so cute.

And there were plenty of other good films this year that did something special. Most of these were in the running for the last two spots on my list. In no particular order:

I like a raunchy Apatow-style comedy with a helping of depth and insight. Or you can take something like Role Models, eschew the depth and insight, and just make it extra balls-out funny. Paul Rudd can definitely lead a film… For a great double feature of very clever and entertaining con movies, pick up The Bank Job and RockNRolla. Both are some of the most fun movies I’ve seen in some time with plots that withstand scrutiny… Speaking of fun films, Gran Torino is not what I would call a good movie by any stretch but hell if it isn’t ridiculously entertaining. It thrives on Clint Eastwood’s hilariously fun and over-the-top performance.

Don’t listen to the rest of these fools on this site, Frozen River is terrific. It’s a quiet film but it kept me tense in its portrayal of desperate poverty… Or for another wintry film to cool you down this summer, turn to David Gordon Green’s bleak but affecting drama Snow Angels, featuring good performances from Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale… For something completely different, Green’s other 2008 film was the hilarious stoner comedy Pineapple Express. I think maybe the last scene was the best ending of the year… Another place to look for laughs is Get Smart, which blew my low expectations away. It’s fairly mainstream comedy but very well-done.

Is it sacrilege for me to admit Kung Fu Panda was my favorite animated film of the year? DreamWorks rose above their usual crutch of pop culture jokes to create something that’s timelessly funny and entertaining while the animation is strikingly gorgeous… HBO’s Recount dramatizes the 2000 Presidential recount farce in a way that didn’t seem too obnoxiously political. Many of the characterizations are campy fun but Laura Dern as Katherine Harris takes the cake… The Fench thriller Tell No One takes the usual genre elements and gives them a curious French stylistic twist… Have I mentioned recently how great Richard Jenkins is in The Visitor? He’s near perfection in a good film, though it lags a bit whenever he is offscreen.

And one final commendation to the first two-thirds of Hancock. It’s rare indeed for me to be so onboard with a movie so quickly and so completely. I mean, what a concept: a boozing superhero who needs a PR campaign to repair his image. Brilliant! The plot and every little story touch is so clever and entertaining while Will Smith and Jason Bateman turn in their usual terrific performances. Too bad the last third is so putrid that it irreparably damages the film. Everything that is so right about the first hour goes spectacularly wrong, as if an entirely differenent set of people made it. I don’t understand how something can be so well-crafted at the beginning and so hapharzardly awful at the end. And I’m not even talking about the big twist, which the DVD box basically spells out. It’s the resolution with its out-of-leftfield plot points and absurd logic. Without that unfortunate turn of events Hancock would have surely been near the top of this list.

On to a better 2009!

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It is easy to criticize the Academy for its choices. Like any organization, they are going to make unpopular decisions. And as with any vote, the most deserving person or film isn’t guaranteed victory in the least. But part of the genesis of this project is the idea that it isn’t fair to ridicule a winner without seeing all of the other nominees. So, we watched all the nominees. Quixotic? Maybe. Fun? Almost always. Here’s what we thought of the Best Picture category:

ADAM

Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire

    As I have stated before, Slumdog Millionaire has been sweeping all awards ceremonies. At this point, it seems like an unstoppable juggernaut. Overall, it was a well written screenplay, with very good acting (especially by the children, the cop, and the game show host). I have issues with the transition and handling of the older children and storyline, but other than that, I thought this was a very well put together movie.

I Want to Win: The Dark Knight

    As with Best Director, I realize that The Dark Knight was not nominated, but in my opinion there was no movie better this year. It is a travesty that it was excluded and my opinion of the Academy has reached an all time low (no small feat).

Dark Horse: The Reader

    The Reader‘s nomination was a surprise to a good many people. The love for it is obviously there so it has an outside chance of stealing this award from Slumdog. However, it is still Millionaire‘s award to lose.

Random Notes:

My disgust with the Academy over this award is palpable. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, The Dark Knight was the best movie of the year. The Academy does itself no favors by proving time and time again that it is both antiquated and close-minded. This is just another example.

BRIAN

Since The Wrestler isn’t in this group, I am going with the masses and hoping for a Slumdog win. Of the five, its the movie I most enjoyed and the one I would most be looking forward to watching again. Faint praise, but well, its the 2008 Oscars.

JARED

You know, I kind of like this group. Not because I think they are the five best pictures of the year, but because they sort of provide a good summary of the Oscar year in film. The Oscar-bait movies were generally disappointing affairs, and more frequently than not, the best movies came outside of the traditional framework (even Slumdog Millionaire didn’t exactly come from the studio system). Most of the biggest themes in 2008 films were largely ignored by the Academy. Looking at the top ten grossing films of the year, for example, there are four animated films, three super hero films, Indy, Bond, and Twilight. Moneymaking doesn’t equal quality, of course, but WALL-E landed on more critics’ top ten lists than other other film, and had the third-highest metacritic score of the year (behind 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and The Class). The Dark Knight was on the fourth-most number of crtic’s lists, and is third of the viable Oscar contenders and nominees on Rotten Tomatoes list, behind The Wrestler and WALL-E.

At this point, I feel like I’ve spent enough time on Frost/Nixon. I’m stunned that anyone could consider it in the top five of 2008 movies. Sure, it felt like an Oscar movie, and was a decent film, but The Wrestler wasn’t better? Maybe as John (I think) said, the film just had more of an impact on people who lived through the Nixon administration. And I’m still content to be in the minority who didn’t think much of Milk. Maybe I’m just allergic to biopics. I can at least somehow see how people might love the film, I suppose, and I don’t think too much less of them.

It is hard to watch Benjamin Button and not think, “Yeah, this is an Oscar movie.” The effects (and I’m including makeup there) are really impressive, and the film has a grand feeling to it. It wasn’t completely successful or maybe even mostly successful in delivering an entertaining film. But it was a valiant effort. And really, I think more or less the same about Slumdog Millionaire. A fantastic start, but it falls a little short of greatness. Again, while I don’t quite understand all the love for the film, I’m certainly not opposed to it.

So yes, I’m the sole person waving a The Reader foam finger. It wasn’t perfect, far from it. But for me, it was touching, maybe even beautiful. Everybody looks for something different from a movie, and I’m not sure I can describe what I want. But I have to think when a film hits me like a punch to the gut, it is doing something right.

JOHN

And here we are, the Big Kahuna. I think this is sort of a middling group of films. The fact that I didn’t truly dislike any of them is better than average for the Academy. On the other hand, only two really moved me. I will have forgotten half this slate in six months.

First, the weakest. How did The Dark Knight lose out to The Reader? It’s not that good but it is total Oscar bait. Consider: forbidden love, the Holocaust, AND a lesson about the importance of art. I guess there’s no way the Academy could refuse (and, for the record, I had one of the few correct pre-nomination predictions on this site when I said it would sneak into the category). Its success is mixed. I was very fascinated by the affair plot. The way young Michael becomes so completely enamored with Hannah and the devastation her rejection wreaks on the rest of his life are very interesting. But the other more serious story lines are much less successful. There’s a very good film to be made exploring how we assign blame to an entire society that commited an atrocity but The Reader is not it. It has some good thoughts on the issue, however, and the scene with Michael’s classmate yelling at the professor is my favorite scene in the film. And then the whole redemptive power of literacy theme is a complete and utter miss. I couldn’t possibly have cared less. Hannah’s actions would be much more interesting explored from her position in society and her occupation than her literacy.

I found Frost/Nixon to be a pretty entertaining ride. It reminds me of Oceans Eleven of all films with the way its characters playfully work their scheme to trick the villain. It’s fun but that’s about it. It’s the problem I mention again and again: I just didn’t care. The big climax is… a contrite Richard Nixon!! Um, so? That surely means a lot to some people but not for me. Without more context Nixon just feels like another movie villain, albeit one I have knowledge of going in. So it’s a fun flick without much weight. I liked Frank Langella and Michael Sheen and Frost’s team of three researchers is hilarious.

Benjamin Button is a darn good story. Take the crazy premise of aging in reverse, choose the time to begin the guy’s life, and let it go. I enjoyed seeing where the story would go and generally the plot is quite interesting. It made me think about the practical challenges of aging backwards. It clearly wanted me to think about something deeper, however, and I think any intended lessons on youth and love fall short. The film looks great and the special effects are very neat without being too ostentatious. Some of the unnecessary contrivances, such as the framing device of old Daisy on her death bed while Hurricane Katrina bears down on New Orleans, are nicely counterbalanced by some really superb segments like the ones in the USSR and World War II. It is a little too sprawling and goes on too long, but it is for the most part a pleasant film-going experience.

There’s a pretty big gap to my top two. Slumdog Millionaire will win and I’ll be okay with that. It’s great to see something untraditional get so much love. Even though I’m making Milk my choice I understand how boring it is to reward a biopic. The contrivances annoyed me at times. It’s meant to be a Dickensian fairy tale and that does make me feel better about them but I’d be lying if I said they didn’t bother me a little. But most of those reservations get blown away by the picture’s look and feel. Exhilarating pieces like the chase through the slums and the scenes at the Taj Mahal took my breath away. The throbbing score gives the entire thing a great pulse. Clearly it has the feel-good thing going for it that puts audience in a good mood and I wonder how much of the love for the film is an outsized response to that. I adore Slumdog Millionaire but I’m not sure how well it will hold up.

And so my choice is Milk. I loved pretty much everything about this film. It transcends its biopic genre by being not just about a man but a time and an ideal. It’s a message film that never grows preachy or sappy. Sean Penn turns in an incredible performance. He’s one of those stars that you immediately forget is Sean Penn when he is on the screen. The supporting cast is also terrific, led by Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch. I also really liked how Milk treats its antagonist, Dan White, by making him quite complex and even somewhat sympathetic. Even the editing in Milk stood out for me with its terrific opening montage that so perfectly set the stage and its use of archival footage. In a lackluster year I’m thrilled to find such a gem even in the guise of a standard Hollywood biopic.

Snubs: I so wish The Dark Knight had made it into the big show. I would never consider myself a superhero movie fan but this felt like a superhero movie made for me with its dark style and thought-provoking themes. It would have been nice to see a big action flick get the recognition. And even though I wasn’t as entranced with WALL-E as nearly everyone else – I merely really liked it instead of loved it – it, too, would have been a fun change of pace for the nomination.

And then there’s The Wrestler, which totally fits into the Academy’s box of the types of films to get recognition and yet did not. Great story, great acting, great camerawork, resonant themes- it’s a shame it never even really entered the conversation.

It is easy to criticize the Academy for its choices. Like any organization, they are going to make unpopular decisions. And as with any vote, the most deserving person or film isn’t guaranteed victory in the least. But part of the genesis of this project is the idea that it isn’t fair to ridicule a winner without seeing all of the other nominees. So, we watched all the nominees. Quixotic? Maybe. Fun? Almost always. Here’s what we thought of the Best Director category:

JOHN

Well, the directing nominees completely overlap the Best Picture so it seems a little hard to separate the best directed from the best picture overall. I guess I’m looking for overall concept, tone, pacing, etc… But I guess most of my in depth comments should be saved for the Best Picture discussion.

I’ve said it before but I had some big problems with Stephen Daldry’s The Reader that I couldn’t get around. Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon has a fun tone but it helped detract from making me, well, care. I enjoyed David Fincher’s Benjamin Button and he does a good job steering a sprawling story filled with special effects. I don’t think it achieves the depth it strives for, but it’s quite an interesting story.

But now for the best. Slumdog Millionaire may well be described as director’s movie. Fairly straightforward and simple plot, shallow characters, and some less than stellar acting are turned into something magnificent in Danny Boyle’s hands. He has a great vision for the film that comes through in the photography, editing, scene composition, and music. I liked Milk better than Slumdog and therefore feel the need to choose Gus Van Sant, but Boyle’s vision made it tough.

Van Sant is my choice. He helms a film that says a lot in just the right tone without preaching and with this subject matter that’s a tough job. The opening montage is worth the price of admission by itself and sets the stage perfectly. The film has an incredible sense of time and place so that it’s part an exploration of the gay experience in 1970s as well as a look at Harvey Milk’s life. Maybe it’s not hard to do so when working with the likes of Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, and James Franco but he elicits great work from his actors. And the interesting creative choice to mix in archival footage works perfectly when I never expected it to.

Snubs: I’m beating the same drums here again and again. Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight and Darren Aronofsky for The Wrestler. Both brilliant with interesting and engaging styles.

BRIAN

Director: Danny Boyle. Whatever.

JARED

I really don’t have any confidence in my ability to determine what effect a director had on a movie, so it seems silly to say anything about the nominees or snubs.  Instead, here’s some other stuff directed by the nominees:

David Fincher – music videos for “Freedom ’90” (George Michael), “Straight Up” (Paula Abdul), “Vogue” (Madonna), “Janie’s Got A Gun” (Aerosmith), and, of course Sting’s “Englishman In New York” and an incredible array of other awesome 80’s musicians (Eddie Money, The Outfield, Rick Springfield, Foreigner, The Motels, Loverboy, Mark Knopfler).

Ron Howard –  Night Shift, Willow

Gus Van Sant – the Psycho remake, music videos for Deee-Lite, Candlebox, “Under the Bridge” (Red Hot Chili Peppers), “Fame ’90” (David Bowie).  And, of course, “Weird” (Hanson).

Stephen Daldry – BORING

Danny Boyle – 28 Days Later

ADAM

Will Win: Danny Boyle

    Danny Boyle stole the front-runner position from David Fincher when he began winning all of the non-Oscar awards.  Between the two of them, Boyle’s film and directing is the clear winner.

I Want to Win: Christopher Nolan

    As with Best Picture, I realize that Christopher Nolan was not nominated, but in my opinion there was no movie better directed this year.  It is a travesty that he was excluded and my opinion of the Academy has reached an all time low (no small feat).

Dark Horse: Gus Van Sant

    Van Sant is the sleeper in this category and could very well steal Boyle’s limelight.  However, it is a long shot at best.  Should he receive the award, at least it will be well deserved.  He missed out with Good Will Hunting, but Milk is a film he can be proud of.

Random Notes:

    It is distressing to me that Ron Howard was able to beat out Christopher Nolan for this nomination.  Frost/Nixon was a decent movie, but it was no where near the caliber of The Dark Knight.  Nolan’s handling of the film shows that his is one of the preeminent directors today.

It is easy to criticize the Academy for its choices.  Like any organization, they are going to make unpopular decisions.  And as with any vote, the most deserving person or film isn’t guaranteed victory in the least.  But part of the genesis of this project is the idea that it isn’t fair to ridicule a winner without seeing all of the other nominees.  So, we watched all the nominees.  Quixotic?  Maybe.  Fun?  Almost always.  Here’s what we thought of the Best Original Screenplay category:

Read the rest of this entry »

It is easy to criticize the Academy for its choices.  Like any organization, they are going to make unpopular decisions.  And as with any vote, the most deserving person or film isn’t guaranteed victory in the least.  But part of the genesis of this project is the idea that it isn’t fair to ridicule a winner without seeing all of the other nominees.  So, we watched all the nominees.  Quixotic?  Maybe.  Fun?  Almost always.  Here’s what we thought of the Best Actor category:

Read the rest of this entry »

It is easy to criticize the Academy for its choices.  Like any organization, they are going to make unpopular decisions.  And as with any vote, the most deserving person or film isn’t guaranteed victory in the least.  But part of the genesis of this project is the idea that it isn’t fair to ridicule a winner without seeing all of the other nominees.  So, we watched all the nominees.  Quixotic?  Maybe.  Fun?  Almost always.  Here’s what we though of the Best Supporting Actor category:

Read the rest of this entry »

John

  1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
  2. The Dark Knight
  3. Milk
  4. The Wrestler
  5. Slumdog Millionaire

Adam

  1. Dark Knight
  2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
  3. In Bruges
  4. Doubt
  5. Slumdog Millionaire

Jared

  1. WALL-E
  2. The Reader
  3. Pineapple Express
  4. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
  5. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Brian

  1. The Wrestler
  2. Milk
  3. WALL-E
  4. Forgetting Sarah Marshall
  5. Dark Knight

Not too much change from last time.  Adam added Doubt, John stayed the same, I added The Reader, and Brian decided to rearrange his order, plus put WALL-E in for Slumdog Millionaire.  We’re coming down the home stretch, boys and girls, just two weeks away from the big night.  We’ll be rolling out our should wins, our predictions, and we’ll wrap up our movie reviews.  Plus, don’t miss our world famous Oscar night liveblog.

Oscar nominations will be announced on January 22. We’re counting down to the big day by tackling some tough questions and spouting some mad opinions. We’re starting with an appropriately grouchy topic: What lock for a nomination is undeserved?

Jared: Milk Script is Spoiled

I’m considerably more bearish on Milk than my fellow Grouches (yet another reason not to trust their opinions), so perhaps unsurprisingly I’m going to be disappointed when Milk gets its Best Original Screenplay nomination.  In my mind, it is a fine movie and decent script, but hardly Oscar-worthy.  Perhaps the strongest argument to support this stance is that the strength of the cast creates the illusion of a stronger script.  If Sean Penn isn’t there giving one of the strongest performances of the season, does Milk get the screenwriting nomination?  Josh Brolin and James Franco’s performances were both nominated for awards, and let’s face it, both play characters with relatively few meaningful lines.  Some argue Emile Hirsch steals the scenes he’s in, because he goes so close to being over the top.  And Diego Luna, well, he sure makes everyone else look better, again suggesting it is the actors, not the script.  Milk follows an awkward storyline, forgoing clearly depicting Milk’s rise for a standard biopic method of cherrypicking events.  Climatic scenes seem to lack an oomph.  Again, it isn’t a bad script, probably in the top fifteen or so original scripts of 2008, but a serviceable screenplay with great actors should not translate to an Oscar nom.  Granted, this year’s original scripts aren’t terribly exciting, and many of the ones in contention do seem to be largely propped up by a star turn.  Now should be the time for the Academy to get off its high horse about comedies, and instead of forcing in something like Milk, turn to an In Bruges.

Adam: Impeach Ron Howard…

It seems unavoidable that I will soon be ridiculing the Academy first for their nomination and then for their ultimate Oscar choices.  I am already disappointed in many of the “locks” that currently pervade the buzz.  Probably the biggest snub in my opinion is the lack of talk about In Bruges (actors, script, directing, picture).  It was one of my favorite films of the year, and I have to give the HFPA credit for their recognition (albeit limited recognition) of it.  That being said, I have chosen a different topic for my piece – Best Director.  Hollywood’s love for Ron Howard while not totally unfounded is highly overblown.  He is perhaps one of the most over-rated directors in the industry.  I actually liked Frost/Nixon, but I don’t believe that the direction warrants a Best Director nod.  There are much more deserving directors including Martin McDonagh for In Bruges (as you may have guessed by my lead-in), Darren Aronofsky for The Wrestler, or John Patrick Shanley for Doubt. Honestly, I don’t really like David Fincher over McDonagh or Aronofsky either.  In short, I think it’s a travesty that In Bruges hasn’t been recognized enough – whether because of its genre, release time, etc. – and I think the Academy needs to look past its standard/comfortable/fall-back nominees to actual deserving candidates.

John: … And Frost/Nixon While You’re at It

Frost/Nixon is a fine film, but not Best Picture worthy. To me it works much better as like a caper movie where a bunch of underdog ruffians try to take down a President. Or as a showbiz flick as the gang tries to put on the big show. But it has designs on being much more and it doesn’t really work and that’s because, at the core, I didn’t really care. I wanted the underdogs to win, I wanted the show to come off without a hitch, but didn’t really care if Nixon said anything revelatory. Maybe it’s a generational thing where a defeated Nixon means little to me. Or maybe the film didn’t give me enough context to care. Which, incidentally is also a failure in direction and writing, two places where Frost/Nixon is also likely to grab nominations. I can give Howard credit for spinning an entertaining yarn, but it doesn’t do anything exceedingly special.

I didn’t become a regular At the Movies viewer until about two years ago. That’s when they started posting their videos online and the four of us started talking movies more and more. That means I never watched regularly before Roger Ebert left, but that was okay because I really like Richard Roeper and I find his tastes match mine pretty well. Ebert’s a good read but he falls for overly-sentimental, treacly junk too often for my liking (see: anything by Paul Haggis).

A string of guest reviewers came (including one horrible show with John Mellencamp) but eventually two settled in permanently that I liked: AO Scott from the New York Times and, even better, Michael Phillips from the Chicago Tribune. This was swell until Disney took the show in a different direction early last autumn and all the smart guys left.

Enter the Bens: Ben Menkiewicz from Turner Classic Movies and Ben Lyons from E!. They started rough but Menk turned out all right. He’s knowledgeable and decent enough in front of the camera. Lyons sucked from the beginning — he was derided from the moment he was announced as host for calling I Am Legend “one of the greatest movies ever made” — and he still sucks. His reviews barely skim the surface and the reasons for his recommendations either make no sense or are based entirely around an actor’s star power. Your kids are going to make you see High School Musical 3 so you might as well Rent It. Thanks, critic! The mockery from the internet continues to grow, including from Ebert himself.

As I often do, I awoke Sunday morning and watched the latest DVR’d episode. It was the Best of 2008 show and I grew horrified as Lyons revealed his list. His top 5:

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2. Slumdog Millionaire
3. Milk
4. The Wrestler
5. The Dark Knight

We’ll have another top 5 post coming up in a few days for movies we saw through the end of 2008. Here’s what my top 2-6 would be, discounting my #1 of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days which appeared on most critics’ lists in 2007:

1. The Dark Knight
2. Milk
3. The Wrestler
4. Slumdog Millionaire
5. Forgetting Sarah Marshall

I am disgusted that I loved the same films as Ben Lyons. And I haven’t seen Benjamin Button, the only film that differs on our top fives, yet. His number 10 was also one of my 2008 faves, In Bruges. My belief system is shocked to the core and my ego has taken a beating. Every week I mock this guy as I watch the show but when it comes down to it our favorites are nearly identical. GAH!

Unfortunately the only other syndicated movie review show, Reel Talk, is hosted by Lyons’s nearly-as-obnoxious father, Jeffrey, a man who seems to like every damn movie. But on a side note, the younger Lyons hosts My Family’s Got Guts on Nickelodeon and is quite good, though that only makes me trust his reviews even less. He should stick to hosting kids’ shows.

Full At the Movies top 10s after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

Apologies for the horrible title. If it goes on to win Best Picture God help us that headline will be everywhere.

Milk may be the best biopic I’ve ever seen. Admittedly the review of my memory for a better biopic was hardly scientific and this is an invitation to set me straight in the comments and for me to sheepishly agree, but for now I’ll call it the best in memory. It doesn’t fall into the usual traps even good biopics succumb to and it manages to be a message flick without being too preachy or heavy-handed.

From a plot standpoint I think Milk’s life naturally lends itself to an effective biopic. For one, it was short and the most influential times of his life spanned a remarkable short period. He only lived to 48, didn’t move to San Francisco until the age of 39, didn’t run for San Francisco supervisor until 43, and didn’t win until 47, and only served for 10 months. This all makes it easy to keep the film focused in both plot and theme without skimping on the details. For me it was a refreshing change of pace from films like Ray and Walk the Line which felt sprawling and thematically shallow because they had so much to cover over their subjects’ long lives. For this reason many biopics feel like a series of vignettes: in this scene the hero experiences childhood tragedy, in this one he let’s his demons overcome him, in this one he redeems himself, etc… Milk rarely feels like that, instead composing a continuous story. And of course, Milk’s life was dramatic and heroic and he fought for the tried and true ideals of freedom and equality.

The positives in Milk are not by all means inherent to the subject, however. Director Gus Van Sant imbues his film with a remarkable sense of time and place, putting the viewer not just into the life of Harvey Milk but also into his environment. As much as we’re experiencing a great man’s achievements we’re experiencing a period of upheaval in 1970s San Francisco. Again, this is rare for a biopic, which necessarily tend to focus more on their subjects than their settings. The cars and clothing change over the years in Ray, for example, but there isn’t the same depth in setting as there is in Milk.

Van Sant filmed mostly in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, even renting the space Milk’s camera shop used to occupy. It was made up to look like the old shop; security guards stationed there reported older residents walking by and getting moved to tears by the recreation.

Beyond that, the story is well told and the characters well developed. The pacing, the level of drama, and the tone always felt right on. And in a time when the gay civil rights movement is gaining attention and traction and Harvey Milk’s state is once again thrust into the spotlight, the message hits home without getting preachy (save, perhaps, that boy in the wheelchair). I found the interspersal of archive footage to be effective and not gimmicky and I loved the opening montage.

Sean Penn is terrific as the title character. He disappears into the role and I in turn lost myself in his performance. The man is simply one of those movie stars that you forget is a movie star when he is on the screen. I also really liked Josh Brolin as Dan White, Milk’s killer. The character is complex and off-kilter and the performance is skillfully and subtly unsettling. If I can agree with one point in Jared’s (I’m sorry to say) remarkably wrong-headed post is that I wish we saw more of White. He is an intriguing character and the film does a disservice to itself by suggesting White did what he did because he was gay. There is no evidence to suggest he was and Dan White’s warped mind was likely more fascinating than explaining away his motives with a false and simple reason. Thankfully there was no scene of him chowing down on Twinkies. (For extra reading, check out this story on White from earlier this year)

As to the rest of Jared’s argument, I know we saw the same movie because I saw it with him. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen him there with my own eyes. I guess he wants more sense of context, but I’m not sure how that matters. Who cares how many gay people there were in San Francisco or how many supported Milk? How does that help a story about the man? The film does a remarkable job of developing its environment, but it’s still primarily about the man. I found the context provided and a simple knowledge of history to be more than enough context. Also you namechecked the wrong Brolin there, boss.

You’d have to think one of the supporting actors will sneak into a nomination, if not several. Brolin was my favorite, followed by Emile Hirsch and James Franco. Neither character was as fleshed out or challenging as Dan White, however. Diego Luna was the weak link in the cast, I think.

Elsewhere we can probably expect Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay nominations, all well deserved. As far as the technical categories, with those big nominations one would imagine Editing to follow. And, to throw a bone to Jared, art director Charley Beal was also the art director for the pilot episode of “Love Monkey,” so he must have been good.

Finally, does anyone know what the deal is with all the random little barbs directed at Dianne Feinstein? Amusing but strange.

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