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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 48

Part 48: 2009


  • Milk

  • Slumdog Millionaire (winner)

  • The Reader (hidden gem)

  • Frost/Nixon

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


His life changed history. His courage changed lives. In 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the first openly gay man to be voted into public office in America. His victory was not just one for gay rights, but for politics in general. A leader for the collective “Us”, Harvey stood up for those whom society had stepped over. From senior citizens to union workers, he changed the very nature of what it meant to be a fighter for human rights.

In Milk, Sean Penn not only captures Harvey as a politician, but as a person. Yes, it’s a rah-rah, get-up-stand-up biopic set during the civil rights movement, but it also touches – first and foremost – on the need to give people hope.

We first meet Harvey Milk (Penn) on the eve of his 40th birthday. While walking through a New York city subway station, he picks up a young Midwestern hunk named Scott (James Franco). The two enjoy a romantic night together, as well as a few more after that. Eventually, the two decide to run away together to a place where they can live above ground, safely, in daylight: San Francisco.

It’s there where Harvey and Scott open a camera shop and become witness to gay persecution by homophobic police. Eager to do something meaningful with his life, Harvey becomes an activist, organizing boycotts of neighborhood businesses that are hostile to gays. When that proves to be successful, he sets out to become the first openly gay elected official in San Francisco.

Harvey would run for the Board of Supervisors three times before finally being elected in 1977. But he remained incredibly active in the meantime. He campaigned for a gay rights ordinance. He acquired a bullhorn and stood on a literal soap box to preach his passionate speeches. He forged an alliance with liberals, unions, teachers, Latinos, blacks and the senior citizens. He had a natural flair for publicity and became a fiery orator. When he finally won public office, he was not only a leader for the gay community, but for all of those who felt ignored by local and state government.

Interlaced in this political rise to fame are Harvey’s romantic adventures. Though Scott stood by Harvey throughout most of his campaigning, they eventually drifted apart. Harvey then went on to befriend, and bed, such “adorables” as Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch), who would become another one of Harvey’s community organizers. Jack Lira (Diego Luna) eventually becomes Harvey’s third conquest, but struggles with Harvey’s political obligations.

It could be said that Harvey’s most loyal “relationship” was to Dan White (Josh Brolin), a seemingly straight member of the Board of Supervisors who forms an awkward alliance with Harvey. Dan White is a good Catholic who believes homosexuality is a sin (though Milk is of the opinion that he might be a closeted case himself). But White is also an alcoholic with a bad temper. When Harvey betrays him, revenge comes at a deadly price.

Similar to Forrest Gump, Milk is laced together with actual archival footage, such as the Castro district undergoing sweeping demographic changes and news reports of Harvey’s misses and successes. These clips work seamlessly into Milk, often giving this film a documentary feel rather than a traditional biopic.

Sean Penn, who won the Best Actor Oscar for this role, never tries to make a hero out of Harvey. Rather, he shows him as an ordinary man: kind, funny, shrewd…yearning for a better world. It’s a film that perfectly showcases what an ordinary man can achieve, even at the age of 40. Though it does tend to run long and many of the side characters don’t get nearly enough development, it’s still a film that’s easily admirable more for its purpose than for its craftmanship.


Slumdog Millionaire

When all that stands between you and a million dollars is the answer to one trivia question, there’s no doubt that you’re bound to feel just a little bit of pressure. The bright lights seem to burn away all your years of education. The cameras seem to zap any ability to rely on critical thinking. As audience members and viewers stop everything to watch you sweat, your tongue feels heavy, your mouth feels dry, and your fingers feel numb. They clearly don’t call it the “hot seat” for nothing.

In India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is one answer away from winning the grand prize of 20 million rupees (a little more than $400,000 in US currency). No contestant has ever come close, and the pressure is on.

Jamal can’t quite believe he’s made it this far, and neither can the police. They think Jamal is cheating and subject him to severe torture in order to figure out how he knew all the answers that got him this far in the game. After all, Jamal is a slumdog – an uneducated and lowly caste Indian – what could he possibly know?

The answer to that unfolds throughout Slumdog Millionaire, as we see the answer to each question (What does the Hindu god Rama hold in his right hand? Whose face is on the American $100 bill?) is braided into Jamal’s past. He knows Rama holds a bow because of a vision he once had as a boy…he knows Ben Franklin is on the $100 bill because of an encounter he had with a young blind boy. Each step in his life has prepped him to win this game show. As they say, it was written.

But Jamal doesn’t care about the money. He’s only hoping the love of his life, who he lost contact with when he was young, is watching so they can, at long last, be reunited.

Directed by Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Trainspotting, The Beach), Slumdog Millionaire feels like a 2003 pop music video, with intense neon colors, insane edits and twisty camera angles. Combined with the near constant flashbacks to Jamal’s past, this film is a jarring visual experience that is honestly more annoying than artistic.

In Jamal’s flashbacks, we also meet his brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal) who has a tragic history of his own. Jamal’s only love Latika (Freida Pinto) rounds out their “Three Musketeers” group, until circumstances ultimately tear them apart. Will the three slumdogs finally meet up again? And will all of this have been worth it?

If Charles Dickens was writing 21st century novels, Slumdog Millionaire could have easily been one of his stories. It carries all of his trademarks: urban squalor, crafty children, evil adults, and serious serendipity. Even Jamal is nothing if not the Artful Dodger, pretending to have jobs to steal money from tourists, inventing “facts” out of thin air…he’s sly, sneaky and almost always one step ahead.

And, like Charles Dickens, I found Slumdog overrated. The story was cute, but I couldn’t get past the crazy jump-cuts. It was so distracting for me that it took me out of the movie experience (I had a similar feeling with 28 Days Later). But it certainly swept the awards, taking home 8 trophies, including Best Director and Best Picture (there's no way this was better than Milk).

The ultimate lesson of Slumdog is two-fold: firstly, we learn that our past doesn’t have to define us. Even if we are a product of a poor, terrible, torturous upbringing, we don’t have to let that determine who we are. We can learn from it, then move past it.

Secondly, we’re taught that nothing happens by accident. Everything that happens in our lives happens for a reason. Our fates are written. Personally, I find that to be a bunch of hooey, but maybe I’m in the minority. Ultimately, I guess that’s really the million dollar question.


The Reader

Germany, 1958. Michael Berg (David Kross), a 15-year-old German boy, is walking through the rain. His rosy cheeks signal he’s unwell. Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), who stumbles upon the sick Michael on her way home from work, takes pity on him. She brings him up to her apartment and cleans him up.

When Michael returns to thank the woman after recovering from scarlet fever months later, he inadvertently catches a glimpse of her changing clothes. He runs away, but can’t get her out of his mind. Obsessed, he returns. Hanna, who is more than twice Michael’s age, seduces him, beginning a summer-long affair that will shape the rest of his life.

Hanna is stern and sensual with Michael. She reveals all of her body but none of her soul to a boy who quickly grows addicted to their sexual gameplay. She asks just one thing of him: that he read to her. Throughout the summer, they read Homer’s Odyssey, then make love…Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, then make love…Anton Chekhov’s story, The Lady with the Little Dog, then make love.

Well, maybe ‘make love’ is the wrong term. They have sex. Love really doesn’t have anything to do with it, at least, not at first. Hanna makes little pretense of actually loving Michael, who she slightly diminishes by calling him “kid”, and Michael is merely a 15-year-old boy exploring his sexuality for the first time. Both Hanna and Michael, whether they’re aware of it or not, are using each other.

Then, as quickly as their affair started, it ends. Without warning, Hanna suddenly vanishes, leaving Michael utterly heartbroken.

It's eight years later and Michael is now in law school. He is invited by one of his professors to attend a war crimes trial of 6 female Nazi SS guards, and sitting front and center is Hanna Schmitz. Now Michael must not only confront his own broken past, but must also hear how this woman who meant so much to him did such atrocious acts during the war.

As the trial goes on, Michael becomes painfully aware of Hanna’s most private secret…one that she’s kept hidden all her life and one that could, in retrospect, affect her sentencing. With this secret, he has the power to save her, but will he? Can he forgive her for hurting him so deeply?

Movies that try to present Nazis as three-dimensional characters face a complicated moral dilemma. By being too sympathetic toward Hanna, there’s a danger of diminishing her complicity in genocide. But portraying Hanna as a caricature of evil isn’t quite honest, either. Here’s where The Reader shines. It doesn’t seek to justify her behavior, nor does it deny what she did. For her, her actions did not define her. She was a woman who locked away the past and lived in the present. She went to work, did her job, and went home. In reality, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more Hanna’s out there than demonic Nazi soldiers like Amon Goeth (ironically, Ralph Fiennes portrays Michael in his elder years). It’s not that she didn’t see the error of her ways, she merely saw it as a job to be done.

As Hanna, Kate is unquestionably fantastic. This woman has the ability to act with her eyes, to say something without saying anything. She makes it hard for us to hate Hanna because we, as the audience, are in on her secret. It certainly doesn’t justify her actions, but maybe it helps explain them. And, whether or not she gets the ending she deserves is, as is often the case, a matter of personal opinion.

Whether or not The Reader is asking us to be sympathetic towards Hanna is just one of its many controversies. Others are upset with the age difference between Michael and Hanna, some think it’s an excuse for soft-core porn disguised as a sermon. But no one seems to realize that The Reader is more relatable than we may think. It demonstrates something we’re all familiar with: that most of us, most of the time, choose to vote with the tribe. Did Hanna know that what she was doing was wrong? Maybe. But she went along with the majority. That is, after all, human nature.


Frost Nixon

When Rocky Balboa wanted to prove his worth, he knew the only way to do it was to challenge the best of the best. "It ain't about how hard you hit," he said. "It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done."

In Ron Howard’s political thriller, Frost Nixon, David Frost (Michael Sheen) is a lightweight TV personality who calls a heavyweight into the ring: one Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). The year is 1977. It’s been 5 years since the Watergate break-in that resulted in Nixon’s resignation. For the better part of that time, Nixon has remained in exile in California, shunning the media and not giving any interviews. In desperate need of retribution (and money) Nixon agrees to do a series of televised interviews with Frost, a man looking to improve his own reputation and be considered a real journalist – not just a talk-show host.

For Frost, taking on Nixon means fame and glory. As a playboy/producer/actor/performer, Frost is no stranger to the camera – but his team feels not nearly prepared enough to take on this titan in the ring.

Nixon is all too willing to go head-to-head with Frost. For one, it’s a sure-fire win for Nixon. His advisers call Frost a lightweight pushover, a flouncy British journalist who is probably too scared to ask the big-ticket questions. Secondly, Frost paid the ex-president $600,000 to lock down the interview. It’s easy money in Nixon’s pocket.

And so, these two ambitious men, one harmful, one harmless, enter the boxing ring. In one corner is Frost, along with his producer, John Burt (Matthew McFadyen), and his political advisers, James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt).

On the other side of this “no holds barred” match is Nixon, along with his chief strategist, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) and a crew of writers who are simultaneously working on his autobiography (including up-and-coming journalist, Diane Sawyer [Kate Jennings Grant]).

What follows is a Rocky-style boxing match, with Nixon sidetracking Frost, tripping him up with head-games, evading points like a master manipulator and falling back on windy anecdotes. He crafts long, complicated answers to Frost’s questions, using that age-old tactic of simply running out the clock. Frost, who doesn’t yet have the gumption or know-how to tackle a powerhouse like Nixon, has no choice but to let him talk. If anything, Frost succeeds in making Nixon look more presidential.

Frost’s team grows desperate. They implore him to interrupt Nixon, bear down hard on him and keep repeating questions until he gets an answer. He’s got to play dirty to beat Nixon at his own game. With one interview left in this one-sided battle, it’s now or never. Will Frost have the guts to down that 6-egg smoothie and give Nixon the trial he never had?

Sheen and Langella, who originated their roles in the Broadway production of Frost Nixon, effectively play their real-life characters without imitating them. They forgo trying to get the vocal ticks right and focus more on their killer performances, and it shows. Langella may not look or sound like Nixon, but he captures him perfectly. In his performance, we see a broken man who had everything, then nothing, and is now the face of betrayal and loneliness.

Langella would earn a Best Actor nomination for his role as Richard Nixon, but lost to Sean Penn (Milk). However he did take home a Tony for Best Actor in a Play for his part in the Broadway production of Frost Nixon.

A record 45 million people tuned into the first episode of the "Frost/Nixon" interviews. It was the largest television audience for a political interview in history, a record that still stands today. In a way, Nixon’s presidency was buried during that final interview with Frost. It allowed for a measure of healing on all sides of the conspiracy and the way director Ron Howard dramatized this movie allowed us, as viewers, to feel for – and maybe even understand – Nixon as a person, not merely a politician.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This weird and wacky world filled with chance and happenstance has but one truth: we all die. Whether we live a life of good deeds or not, whether we submit to religious beliefs or not, whether we age forward or backward, the result is always the same.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 1922, he was inspired by an observation made by Mark Twain: “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18.” In David Fincher’s film adaptation, we get to see this first-hand, as a man descends through the years from newborn senescence to terminal infancy. But does growing younger in body and mind really make for a better life?

Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) was “born under unusual circumstances.” He arrived as a baby that looked like a dying man in his 80’s, with poor eyesight, brittle bones and wrinkled flesh. After his mother dies during childbirth, his father – horrified by what he sees – abandons his child at a nursing home. A maternal black woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who runs the facility, literally stumbles upon the baby and takes him in.

In his early years, Benjamin fits right in among the old and forgotten. “I’m 7,” he says, “but I look much older.” His old exterior and young interior help him bond with a young girl named Daisy (Elle Fanning), who is the granddaughter of one of the residents at the nursing home. Although they’re aging in different directions, their friendship will last both of their lifetimes.

As Benjamin grows younger, Daisy grows older and pursues a career in ballet (she is now played by Cate Blanchett). As is common with life-long friends, they weave in and out of each other’s lives, but always seem to find a way back home. It’s not until their timelines sync, somewhere in their 30s, that Benjamin and Daisy finally are able to explore their love for each other. But, as we all know, time is the nemesis of love. As Daisy grows older and Benjamin grows younger, the inevitable questions arise. Things get even more complicated when Daisy learns she’s pregnant. How can she raise a child, and a lover, at the same time?

With its stylized look, heavy use of voiceover and desire to place its main character in several historical events, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is eerily similar to Forrest Gump. Both Benjamin and Forrest have a condition that determines their life experiences, they both work on a boat with a whiskey-loving captain, both experience war, both speak with a slow, southern drawl, both are deeply involved in history, yet blissfully untouched by its consequences, both films feature a flying symbol that’s supposed to tie everything together (for Button, a hummingbird; for Gump, a feather), and both are shallow stories dressed up as deep insightful art pieces. Not to mention, both were written by the same guy (Eric Roth).

While these similarities are certainly not unheard of, I think the film Benjamin Button perhaps most resembles is Big Fish. Both feature the same comic book/Wes Anderson stylized look, both feature an elderly person on their death bed, recounting their story to a distant child, both feature a birth of unusual circumstance and include a mirage of guest appearances. Both speak to time, love and death as monumental pillars of the human experience, and both even use water to bridge the gap between the end of something and the beginning of something else.

So, to say that Benjamin Button is a unique story isn’t quite right. But to say that it’s a copy and paste isn’t quite right, either. Though it certainly borrows a lot of the set pieces from Gump and Big Fish, it lacks the whimsy of both films. Button is very much a movie about love, but more so, it’s a movie about death. The movie starts with Benjamin’s mom dying, and goes directly into a nursing home, where death is a frequent visitor. As Benjamin grows younger, he experiences a lot of the same things many elderly folks do – forgetting how to walk and talk, not remembering eating a meal, needing help getting dressed and going to the bathroom. As Daisy says earlier in the film, “we all end up in diapers.”

I guess in the end, the end comes for us all.





Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Frank Langella), Best Director (Ron Howard), Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


Wins: Best Actor (Sean Penn), Best Original Screenplay

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Josh Brolin), Best Costume Design, Best Director (Gus Van Sant), Best Film Editing, Best Original Musical Score, Best Picture

The Reader

Wins: Best Actress (Kate Winslet)

Other Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Director (Stephen Daldry), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Wins: Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, Best Visual Effects

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Supporting Actress (Taraji P. Henson), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director (David Fincher), Best Film Editing, Best Original Musical Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture

Slumdog Millionaire

Wins: Best Cinematography, Best Director (Danny Boyle), Best Film Editing, Best Original Musical Score, Best Original Song ("Jai Ho"), Best Sound Mixing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Original Song ("O Saya"), Best Sound Editing

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