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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 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.
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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.

Harvey Milk’s story is the stuff from which biopics are made. He faced discrimination, became a leader in his community, had a series of failed campaigns, was finally the first openly gay person elected to major office, and was murdered by a disgruntled fellow politician. There’s tragedy and triumph, all surrounding Important Social Issues.

Dustin Lance Black and Gus Van Sant’s depiction of that story, however, never really rises to the challenge. Compelling actors and back story make the movie watchable, but it doesn’t seem particularly special. If, as some people claim, 2008 is a relatively weak year for Oscar movies, this movie’s awards success might be helping the notion gain traction.

Milk’s primary weakness is its inability to provide context.  It is never quite clear who, exactly, is impacted by Harvey Milk.  This vagueness starts with his coterie, none of whom are given any discernible character traits.  Other than his two boyfriends, who maybe get one apiece.  There’s never any sense of how many gay people were living in San Francisco, or how many people (gay or straight) supported Milk.  Or didn’t.  The movie hints at Milk uniting the gay vote and turning it into a force, but what was the magnitude of that force?  Perhaps Van Sant attempts to answer these concerns with his insertion of stock footage from the era.  But it only serves to weaken the film’s tenuous creation of an environment.

That’s not to say the movie is a failure.  It has plenty of solid moments.  The film has some funny bits and some touching ones.  It is paced well and is fortunate to have a great cast.  Milk, perhaps obviously, advocates gay rights, but the message is generally used to enhance the film, rather than take it over.

I’ve probably made it clear I’ll be disappointed if/when the movie grabs Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay nominations.  The Academy has done far worse, but I just don’t get why Milk is considered great, and not merely good.

At this point, I’m all for Sean Penn and James Brolin to be nominated for Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively.  I love me some James Franco, but I’m not sure he’s deserving here.  Penn as Milk, is probably the highlight of the movie (other than the doggie, naturally),  and he certainly makes the movie much more interesting.  Brolin’s character is another supporting one who deserved to be better fleshed out.  But he turns Dan White into the most intriguing character in the movie, one who provokes the most thought.  For me, anyway.

September 2017
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